A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a book so brilliant and well-crafted that it borders on tedious. Over the course of its 512 pages, Towles stuffs in a textbook's worth of history lessons, examining the many changes that Russia underwent during the 1920s through the 1950s. Simultaneously, he refocuses the lens away from major power players into the lives of the everyday citizens who populate Stalin's era. Our guide through this historical drama is Count Alexander Rostov, a nobleman sentenced to "house arrest" in the (formerly) glamorous Metropol hotel. Like a rich man living in quarantine, Rostov must find a sense of meaning in his now monotonous life - a Herculean endeavor for a gentleman so accustomed to luxurious travel and uninhibited activity. Through the Count's eyes, we see history unfurling through one dramatic event after another. Even more effectively, Moscow's readers are also privy to the psychological, emotional, and spiritual development of a fallen aristocrat.
First and foremost, this novel is a love letter to Russian literature. Taking his cues from Tolstoy and other Russian writers, Towles crafts a sweeping epic that vacillates between the personal and the global, the micro and the macro. Incorporating politics, history, literature, music, and culinary arts, Towles establishes himself as a veritable encyclopedia; the author has no difficulty oscillating from the world of wine and fine dining to the realm of political persecution. It's a testament to the author's encyclopedic knowledge that none of it feels forced or orchestrated; rather, the Count is a truly believable benefactor and tour guide through the novel's multitudinous pages.
A Gentleman in Moscow encapsulates a very specific era in world history: the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the national transition into communism. Like George Orwell before him, Towles casts a suspicious eye on the Russian leaders who heralded a new age in international politics. But this is no Animal Farm . Whereas Orwell focuses almost exclusively on the political headlines and transitions of power that rocked the world, Towles is more concerned with the effects of the Russian Revolution on its citizens. That psychological insight is a powerful tool in the author's arsenal that translates the political into the personal and the global into the local.
It's clear that Towles has a deep, abiding love of Russian literature and its complicated tropes. He draws upon his literary predecessors throughout A Gentleman in Moscow, even going so far as to quote whole sections of Dostoevsky's personal letters. In one passage, Towles gently jests about the tendency of Russian authors to use several different names/nicknames for the same character... and then proceeds to do the same with his own characters. It's a clever sleight of hand that reminds the reader just how well-versed, knowledgeable, and insightful Towles can be. The author has clearly done his homework, delving deeply into Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gogol (amongst others) - and sprinkling frequent allusions to these writers throughout the many, many pages of his novel.
As the Count finds love, laughter, and life within the claustrophobic walls of the Metropol, the reader gets swept up in the daily doldrums and monthly meanderings of our protagonist. Along the way we encounter some unique, singular characters: a once-and-future movie star who rides the precarious waves of fame, a precocious young girl with a penchant for asking questions, a maître d’ who once juggled knives in the circus, a military officer obsessed with Humphrey Bogart films, and a meddling hotel manager with a vitriolic vendetta. These figures (and more) who populate the halls of the Metropol are cleverly crafted, thoughtfully imagined, and brilliantly realized.
At times, though, A Gentleman in Moscow drags and sputters with self-involved sections that fail to keep the reader engaged. Perhaps that is the author's intent: we read through chapter after chapter of drudgery and daily minutiae... until the story ultimately coalesces into a meditation on aging and adulthood. All the while, Towles drops breadcrumbs for his reader, circling back to metaphors, symbols, and motifs until the novel's thrilling conclusion. So, while reading A Gentleman in Moscow might feel like being trapped inside a stunning literary hotel, you can't ask for better company during the long haul through the decades of the story.
With Russia once again making international headlines, A Gentleman in Moscow has become even more relevant than when it was published in 2019. One can only hope that the 21st-century counterparts of Count Alexander Rostov are able to escape their claustrophobic confines and find freedom in their hearts - like the protagonist of Towles' enchanting tale.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.