American writer Amor Towles’ third novel, the best-selling A gentleman in Moscow, generated a surprisingly lively discussion at my reading group last week, because beneath its engaging, accessible exterior are some puzzles. These puzzles relate primarily to Towles’ intentions. What were they? Why did an American investment banker write an historical fiction novel about a Count in Bolshevik Russia?
But, I’m rushing ahead, so I’ll slow down and do the right and proper thing, which is to start with a plot outline. The novel opens in Moscow in 1922, when our protagonist Count Rostov – once a hero of “the prerevolutionary cause” but now a “Former Person” – is sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the grand hotel, the Metropol, in which he has been living for four years. Not only that, but he is to live in the old servant’s quarters rather than in his luxurious suite. Fortunately, our count is nothing if not resourceful, and he quickly decides that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them”. The next 450 pages or so chronicle the next three decades or so of the Count’s life under this house arrest, detailing life in the hotel and the relationships he forges over that time. It is, unexpectedly, a thoroughly enjoyable read, but why, exactly? What is it all about?
While most of my reading group loved the book, albeit a couple of us had this niggling “why” question, one member found it “intellectually dishonest”. She could not accept the Count as being in any way representative of Russian aristocrats of the time, and she felt that the novel glossed too easily over the real horrors of the period. Why did she feel so strongly about this, while the rest of us, mostly well-versed in Russian history, did not feel the same way? Well, I don’t know exactly, but I think it might have something to do with form and tone.
I’m going to explore this a little rather than focus on the content, partly because it intrigues me and partly because I presume that quite a few of you will have read the book and know its content. So, here goes. The novel is historical fiction, but what sort? It’s not your bodice-ripping romance nor the swash-buckling adventure that exemplify this genre. But, neither is it the sort of social realism that is the most common alternative to the romance or adventure approach. What, then, is it? Well, as I was reading it, I had visions of Austen. Sorry, but it’s true! It’s not Austen, of course, but it has a comedy-of-manners ring to it, complete with Austen-like commentary, not to mention her satiric and ironic touches.
This means that although, as its own blurb says, it takes place during “some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history”, the focus is elsewhere. It’s on the Count and the small community surrounding him; it’s on how does one, in fact, adapt to living under such circumstances. Some of you will know Jane Austen’s famous comment in a letter to her niece about her subject matter:
You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life – 3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.
It’s not a stretch to see the story of the Count’s life in the Metropol through this prism. Indeed, the above-mentioned blurb continues to say that the Count, stripped of his luxuries, “is forced to question what makes us who we are”. This journey was the book’s main story for me. We do learn about Stalin’s regime, through characters who come to the hotel and interact with the Count, but the Count’s personal story is the main game.
So, what does he learn? Early on, he vows “to master his circumstances through practicalities”, and this he does by tailoring his life and expectations. His initial change from hotel guest to prisoner sees him still living pretty much the high life, free to relax and dine, but by the end of the novel he is working as the Head Waiter in the main restaurant, for which, in fact, his aristocratic training in etiquette had well qualified him. He had said that “his model for mastering his circumstances” would not be Dantés planning revenge, nor Napoleon imagining his triumphal return, but “a different sort of captive altogether: an Anglican washed ashore. Like Robinson Crusoe”. Crusoe, in other words, adapted, confronting the challenges as they arose.
As with most of Austen’s protagonists, the Count’s “learnings” are not overly dramatic. He’s already a generally decent, sensible sort of person, but late in the novel, he tells his lover, Anna, in a discussion comparing American “conveniences”, like dishwashers, with Russian privations,
“I’ll tell you what is convenient … To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”
These inconveniences revolve around the deep relationships he develops through his imprisonment and the demands that such relationships entail. They result in a man who is described by his interlocutor at the beginning as being “without purpose” turning into someone very purposeful.
What’s also Austen-ish is the commentary, the astute observations made about human nature, such as:
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 …
If there’s one thing Austen recognises it’s the capriciousness of humans. Another Austen-like statement is this one: “It is a fact of human life that one must eventually choose a philosophy”.
But, still, why write such a story? Towles, himself, has said that he wanted to write about someone forced to live in a grand hotel, and that he had “no central theme”. Rather, he wanted to create a work that would be “satisfyingly cohesive” but “prompt varied responses from reader to reader, and from reading to reading.”
Consequently, while my reading of the book encompasses seeing it as critiquing the corruption, hypocrisies and loss of freedoms that characterised the Bolshevik regime, my overall response is a broader one, which is that, unlike the Count’s friend Mishka and the little-girl-turned-mother Nina, we would do better to develop and rely on our personal set of values, to work on our relationships and the attendant responsibilities not to mention on our own adaptability to circumstances, as the Count does, than commit to any single “ism”.
A gentleman in Moscow
London: Viking, 2016
ISBN: 9781448135509 (Kindle ed.)