December 10, 2018

Reading Uncertainly? ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles

“By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration – and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” This is the theme of a compelling, engrossing, and forever cheerful story of an Russian aristocrat condemned to lifetime “house arrest” in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel in 1921.

Through the eyes and experiences of Count Alexander Rostov, in five segments (1921-22; 1923-46; 1950; 1950-53; and 1954), we are treated to a history of Russia, the Soviet Union, European literature, art, music, medicine and architecture. And dining: the Count becomes the Head Waiter at the hotel’s superlative dining room. An entire chapter is devoted to the creation of a sumptuous bouillabaisse – a foodie’s delight!

Consider this analysis: “Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves bat this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple? What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again?”

The good Count is forever curious, of people, events, and changing circumstances. On reading: “After all, isn’t that why the pages of a book are numbered? To facilitate the finding of one’s place after a reasonable interruption?” On how he spends his time: “dining, discussing, reading, reflection.” On history: “the business of identifying momentous events from the comfort of a high-backed chair.” On life itself: “ … life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions.” And, given his confinement, also exercising: squats and push-ups every morning, plus climbing stairs to his attic rooms.

Towles names the Count’s barber at the hotel, Yaroslav Yaroslavl, provoking my own recollections of travel in Russia, first to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) at its Hermitage in 1984 and later to Moscow and Yaroslavl in 1992. And the Count also states emphatically that, “all poets must eventually bow before the haiku,” a statement which — as a modest haiku composer myself — I endorse with pleasure!

So the Metropol becomes hardly a “prison” for Count Alexander, but rather it is his own wide, wide world.

One unusual note: all chapters have titles beginning in the letter A. And the end of the story has an unnamed lady waiting for the Count. But we know her name both begins and ends with an A …

The keynote of the eminently readable novel is “Montaigne’s maxim, that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.”

Editor’s Note: ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles is published by Viking, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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