On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov - recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt - is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol. But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.
“If patience wasn’t so easily tested, then it would hardly be a virtue...”
In 1922, at thirty years of age, Count Alexander Rostov, is placed under house arrest, for being a unrepentant aristocrat. He is to spend the next thirty years at the Metropol, a grand hotel, across the street from the Kremlin. This wonderful, beautifully written novel, chronicles the count's life, over these decades, inside this enclosed interior. As history unfolds outside, life remains insulated, although the Count learns to evolve with the times, in quiet, subtle ways.
I am going to be vague on the details of this story, so the reader may experience it, the way I did, with glorious ignorance, but there is so much to admire, between these pages but the biggest joy is seeing this world, through the eyes of the Count, one of the best fictional characters, I have ever encountered and it sure helps, that the Count is an obsessive reader, which we can all relate to.
The writing here is impeccable. Many times I was tempted to turn to those around me to read a particularly enchanting passage. It was hard to do so, because such lines are the fulfillment of a chain of description and preparation, of which the felicitous ending is but the fitting culmination. The prose is charming, concise, unadorned, and elegant.
This is a book of sublime miniatures: A sister’s silver scissors fashioned in the shape of an egret has a golden screw at the pivot representing an eye. And immense ideas as well. The vastness of inner life confronts the constraint of the external. Enduring values are set against the inevitability of change. Tolstoy’s view of history gurgles always in the background, as the reader grapples with the relationship of individual action with the impenetrable play of events.
I laughed, I cried and I called out in appreciative satisfaction. Loose ends duly tied up, with interest. A banquet served in words, best savored slowly. This is everything a book should be. Run, don’t walk.
Resourceful 32 y.o. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the elegant Moscow Metropol Hotel and his residence is moved from a second floor luxury suite to the 6th floor belfry in 1922. His crime: being born into the Tsarist aristocracy. As Stalin's grip clenches Russia, the Count, after a bout of depression, goes about setting up a life within the confines of the Metropol. Nine year old Nina, who is also temporarily confined to the hotel, provides the key(s) that release him from depression and provides him with all he needs to create a world within the Metropol.
If one is confined, then one must set about establishing means to acquire life's essentials: food, beverage, clothing, meaningful work, and love. Alexander finds all of these things within the Metropol. He establishes relationships with the chef, the bar tender, the seamstress, a returning actress, and adult Nina returns to leave her daughter, Sophia, with the the Count.
There are many small stories within the larger story that enhance the entertainment value of the novel. There is a clandestine assembling of a secret midnight meal in the middle of the siege on Moscow during WWII. There is ongoing relationship with Soviet General Osip in which the Count mentors him in the underpinnings of western culture. That relationship turns to the Count's advantage in the end. There are several other entertaining sub-stories embedded in the book, which I found delightful.
The book is structured almost like Russian nesting dolls: time is condensed in the first and last part of the book, while the time periods between chapters expand outward in the center of the book, which is the time covering the Great Depression and WWII.
The author has done a great job of putting together a thought provoking, multilayered story, that requires a bit of suspension of disbelief.
Publisher’s Summary: adapted from Audible.com
A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in an elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel's doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
“… if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” (18)
The Count’s elegant, impeccable manners and his distinguished diplomacy are a delight. And the novel’s numerous and varied characters are the perfect companion to the his endeavour to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose. In one of my favourite scenes, Rostov is explaining to young Nina how we owe the generations that have come before us a debt of gratitude – not simply the grand dukes and grand duchesses, but elders of all social classes who have come before us:
“The principle here is that a new generation owes a measure of thanks to every member of the previous generation. Our elders planted fields and fought in wars; they advanced the arts and sciences, and generally made sacrifices on our behalf. So by their efforts, however humble, they have earned a measure of our gratitude and respect.” (50)
Beautifully written, and so memorable. I was reminded more than once of Chekov’s short story “The Bet,” in which, ironically, a man’s imprisonment leads to his discovering the true meaning of life. Narrator Nicholas Guy Smith is extraordinary! Highly recommended.
A Gentleman in Moscow is not at all what I had expected, and I'm glad. Because it is that delightful kind of literary surprise that simply enchants its readers. I'm not often "enchanted" by a book, crusty old fart that I consider myself, but this book had that kind of magic to it, all 460-plus pages. That's quite a hat trick. But I loved all of it. Bravo, Mr. Towles. And all those rave reviews? Well deserved. My highest recommendation.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
The superlatives reviewers have lavished on this novel are well deserved. This is an enthralling, all consuming window into life in Moscow from the pre 1920's through to the 1950's, from Stalin and the Bolsheviks through to Nikita Khrushchev.
We view the microcosm of what's happening in Russian history through the eyes of the man 'in the bubble' Count Alexander Rostov, who in 1922 was confined for life to the Metropol Hotel, across from the Kremlin, by a Bolshevik tribunal.
Mentored by his godfather and guardian, the Grand Duke Demidov, Alexander recalls the Grand Duke's words, 'if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.' These words mark the way Alex moves forward.
How the sophisticated, urbane Count Alex handles his incarceration is wonderfully told. His acquaintances are like a panoply of stars spread out beneath Alex's new sky, the ceiling of the Metropol.
His meeting with, and continued relationship with the fascinating child Nina, the harsh realities of the changes in the politburo, the advancement of small minded individuals like the inept waiter the Bishop, contrasted to the kindliness of some of the more urbane true believers.
Of the many friends Alex makes amongst hotel staff four stand out; Andrey, the maître d’ of the Boyarsky Restaurant, Emile the chief, Vasily the concierge and Marina the hotel seamstress.
His world, in one fell swoop narrowed, is in reality enlarged through the people he becomes acquainted with. There are his friends from the past. The angst of his writer friend Mishka, an expert on Chekov. And not to be disregarded a new friend, the actress Anna Urbanova.
There's Nina the young girl who grows into a fervent young woman, typical of her generation committed to the communist ideals. Her fanatical absorption with change for the common good that at times prove disastrous reflecting the broad sweep of political, social and economic change that forgot to involve the people and it's way replaced one tyranny with another.
A startling set of circumstances give him Sofia, the child he was to mind for a month, the daughter he unexpectedly acquires. She brings light and meaning to his life.
Abram the handyman he encounters on the roof and from whom he learns the secrets of coffee and the miracle of the bees. A wonderful interlude that helps Alex retain his equilibrium.
And the others, Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov, a former colonel of the red army, a Party man who comes to Alex to be educated in understanding the privileged classes of those countries Russia wants to enter into economic and political discussions with. England, France and America...and how they view the world. The American psyche needed to be understood. For over fifteen years they read literature, discussed and watched films together. Their run down on Casablanca is superb.
A life lived within the confines of the hotel that Alex somehow ironically lived to the full, discovering new emotional truths, new revelations.
Layers within layers are revealed within the story like the Russian nesting dolls Alex at one time unwraps, layers of meaning and revelation that are just as painstakingly and beautifully crafted.
This novel is pure poetry, gift wrapped in vivid and taut prose.
An amazing read!
A NetGalley ARC
From 1992, at age 30, until 1954, the count nurtures a talented young student, balances his old friends and the new authority, maintains a quirky romance with a passionate movie star, and eventually becomes the Head Waiter at the renowned Boyarsky Restaurant at the hotel.
The tale is told with such warmth and humor that we must forgive the author for going on a bit too long - it is to savor, like all the fine cuisine, drink, and loyal friendships that permeate this extraordinary novel.
What in the world takes up the next 440 pages? How can one man's years sequestered in a Moscow hotel be that interesting or absorbing? Here is the genius of Amor Towles - to so completely inhabit the cheery, cosmopolitan character of Rostov: his viewpoints, his musings over his past years & the twists and turns of Russian history, his enjoyable and serendiptious friendships with hotel staff, with regular and irregular visitors to the Metropol, with a famous Russian actress, with a curious 13 yr old named Nina, a frequent longterm guest with her parents, with an American ambassador, an American military attache, & even a powerful Politboro apparatchik who requires monthly dinners with Rostov, for years, to educate him in the viewpoints of "the privileged classes", especially of French & English. His extended observations (on points of honor, of the pleasures of good wine/ well prepared food, the delights of both the Russian countryside and its customs as well as those of Moscow, & the ebb and flow of consequences and human nature, for ex) are not tiresome, but so entertaining I willingly went down any rabbit trail from the plot. Stylistic masterful, subtly insightful, with a quietly heroic gentleman of Moscow- the book requires unhurried time, but once you submerge, you'll be glad you did!
The characters are charming, compelling and delightfully quirky, the Count most of all. While primarily a fictional narrative, it does also give the reader some insight into the Russian psyche and what it was like to be a Russian citizen during that tumultuous time in Russian history.
The downside to this gem of a book is that it has spoiled me - I may never read another book again.
This book tells the most improbable of stories. A tsarist aristocrat who is placed under house arrest in an elegant Moscow hotel in 1922 and stays there, for decades, forbidden to leave. While I normally love books set in Russia in the twentieth century, that was not actually the real appeal of this one. And I think I was actually put off by the first few pages, which purport to be the protocol of the court decision to allow Count Alexander Rostov to avoid jail. I thought they sounded wrong, and was unable to suspend disbelief.
But on second reading, that didn't matter. Nothing about the book is meant to be real. The bloody twentieth century in Russia gets barely a mention. There is no violence to speak of. No one is dragged off by secret police in the middle of the night. Instead, the focus is the noble character of the Count and the friendships he forms while confined to the luxurious Metropol. And what wonderful friendships they are.
One cannot read the book and not be moved. I smiled (a lot), I sometimes felt sad, and I worried about what will happen to this character or that. I was engaged with this imaginary Moscow, which has little in common with the one that actually existed. A Gentleman in Moscow is above all a human story, gentle and warm and full of love. I highly recommend it.
The book disguises itself as sociopolitical commentary – Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian nobleman of the old order, is forced to remain under “house arrest” in a Moscow hotel while zealous agents of revolution set about their communist agenda. Towles use of situational and verbal irony – applied with the deftest of brushes – draws attention to the absurdities and extremes of the socialist revolution without the necessity of crude satire or editorizing.
For the focus of this novel is not geopolitics, but the character of Count Rostov himself. How will the years of confinement shape him? Will he diminish as the world around him – his living conditions, his acqaintances, his access to worldly experiences– diminish? Or will he rise above the confinement to discover that “home” is a state of mind rather than a place, love a choice rather than a “fixed mark,” and grace a form of triumph rather than the embracing of defeat?
And then Towles surrounds the extraordinary character of Rostov with a cast of equally memorable and empathetic dramatis personae, each of them wrestling with their own versions of the same quandary: Anna Urbanova, the star of movies that seem to have no place in the “new order”; poet Mikhail Fyoderonch, whose passion for ideas tragically supersedes his passion for revolution; Nina, Rostov’s fellow confinee, whose proud self-assurance may result in her salvation or her destruction; Sofia, Nina’s daughter, whose gift for music may prove either a trap or a path to freedom; even the loyal and honorable employees comprising the hotel staff, struggling to adapt to a world in which service, quality, good manners and etiquette are gradually overthrown by crass convenience.
By almost any measure, A Gentleman in Moscow is a wonderful tale, made even more remarkable by Towles, exquisite prose, which is as infallibly erudite and self-effacing as Rostov himself. Let us not overlook, however, that it is merely the latest addition to a genre that includes such other remarkable works as Lampadusa’s The Leopard, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and Naipaul’s Mimic Men – all of which tell the story of extraordinary individuals facing the waxing of a new order and the waning of their own. As long as change and evolution remain inexorable, books will continue to be written about doomed causes mowed down by inescapable change – but, sometimes, we also get books like these, in which global uprisings and overturnings are made vividly and emotionally real, framed within the context of a single, extraordinary individual.
This novel is primarily how one man copes with his imprisoned life. One sentence from the novel portrays his attitude and philosophy of life that helped him survive: "Having acknowledged that a man must master is circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them, the Count thought it worth considering how one was most likely to achieve this aim when one had been sentence to a life of confinement." The Count's motivation to make the best of less than ideal circumstances reminded me of the young Jewish protagonist in the foreign film, Life is Beautiful, or Victor Frankel's ability to survive in a concentration camp where may chose to give up and die. I believe that this book will eventually become a classic.
Towle's writing is superb. The characters are vividly drawn, the mundane becomes interesting, and the history is fascinating. Well-researched, well-written, probably the book I have most enjoyed reading this year.
“But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn't welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely that we hold our friends. We carry them from Place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity-- all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance.” p14
In 1922 Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to perpetual house arrest in a small attic room at the Metropol hotel for being an 'unrepentant aristrocrat'. He is forced to give up his well appointed suite in the hotel, furnished with beloved antiques handed down his family through generations. He also is forced to give up his glittering multinational lifestyle, almost all of his possessions and most of his friendships.
But he not only makes the best of his situation, he thrives, as he focuses his attention on the people living within the hotel and the events that transpire there, managing to maintain his unique outlook.
Is the story realistic? This was the major quibble that my book club debated. I constantly expected him to be sent to some sort of prison or labor camp.
But, realistic or not, the count is a wonderful, well rounded character and the ending is one you will ponder.