It’s been three decades since I last read Russian literature: Anna Karinena, The Brothers Karamozov, The Cherry Orchard, War and Peace. I was also enamored by the majesty and tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra’s story. There was, then, something very intriguing about Russian history. Perhaps my reading was to put a humane face on the enemy who gave us the Cuban missile crises, the Iron Curtain, and the Cold War.
In any case, reading A Gentleman in Moscow evoked memories of those weighty tomes and the history of Russia. I must admit I also remember skipping entire pages of dense text and rolling description. Perhaps the impatience of youth caused me to skip ahead because I had no time for detail and minutia.
Times have changed. Now I revel in the lush descriptions and vivid details the author uses to tell this very human and often humorous story. Amor Towles must have immersed himself in all things Russian to capture what it must have been like for the middle-of-the-road Russian during the brutal transition from a tsarist autocracy to a communist state and world power. I love his attention to detail and his ability to draw it all back together for a purpose.
The Hotel Metropol itself is a central figure in A Gentleman in Moscow. The use of a place as an important element in the story brings to mind Maeve Binchy’s novels In which a restaurant in Dublin is the centerpiece of the action and the linch pin which bind characters together. Moscow’s Hotel Metropol fulfills the same role. Had the Count not been under house arrest in the hotel for decades, characters would not have crossed paths, events would not have happened, and the Count himself would not have had as rich a life as he had. The hotel’s amenities, popularity, and secrets allowed the story to unfold.
Though forbidden to leave the hotel, the Count Alexander Rostov kept his finger on the pulse of Russia by engaging and observing people from all levels of society: bureaucrats, seamstresses, actresses, foreign diplomats, poets, politicians and all the employees of the hotel. He embraced, rather than bemoaned, his diminished circumstances and, to maintain the hotel’s excellence, became an employee of the hotel himself.
After the Russian revolution, the Count was put under house arrest for being an aristocrat which was to say, not one of the people, not a true Russian. In fact, he was a very patriotic man. When the revolution began, he fled to Moscow, not from it. Through out his life, he tried to embody the best of the Russian culture which could be appreciated by all: music, ballet, excellent food, good vodka, great literature. He mourned the boorishness of the communist state which tried to replace the extraordinary with the mundane. Those policies ended up putting beauty and culture out of the reach of common people and set aside for only high ranking officials.
Through out the story, the count bested mindless bureaucrats in countless small ways, deftly staying out of trouble by knowing and understanding, and in some cases flattering everyone he met. He grew bolder as his friends became more influential and the stakes grew bigger. In the end, the Count beat the petty officials at their own game of stealth and subterfuge and he finally left the hotel. He could have escaped to the West or to Paris, but true to his nature, he chose to disappear into the Russian countryside where he could continue to enjoy true Russian beauty.