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Amor Towles, A gentleman in Moscow (#BookReview)

May 9, 2019

Cover for Amor Towles A gentleman in MoscowAmerican 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 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”.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) thoroughly enjoyed this book too.

Amor Towles
A gentleman in Moscow
London: Viking, 2016
502pp.
ISBN: 9781448135509 (Kindle ed.)

18 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2019 9:55 am

    Hi Sue, thanks for the mention… writing this on the brink of departing for Katherine Mansfield’s house… but just had to say, at the end of my review I say that I’m looking out for Rules of Civility… and yes, I now have a copy on my TBR!

    • May 9, 2019 2:21 pm

      Thanks Lisa… It’s on my TBR but I had completely forgotten that I had it until a couple of weeks ago when I was looking at my TBR situation. I need to reorganise the piles/she loves again because I’m currently losing it!

  2. Sara Dowse permalink
    May 9, 2019 10:18 am

    I have to say, WG, that I was one of the ones who loved this book. I know my Russian history (indeed have written of it myself and am doing so now) but I couldn’t help but be enchanted by Towle’s tone and characters. Reading it, the book had something of the air of a fairy tale, much much lighter than, say, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, but with the same transformational, imaginative treatment of a grim time in Russia. It never occurred to me to compare it with Austen’s work, but now that you’ve explained it I get your point entirely. Austen, as I recall, has been noted for not explicitly dealing with the Napoleonic wars, except in the presence of the garrisons and the soldiers’ appeal to the Lydias of the time. There’s a richness here that the narrative uncovers, and a grace, which was, for me, utterly captivating. So good to read your views on it.

    • May 9, 2019 2:29 pm

      Thanks Sara. Yes, I did add a reference to the Napoleonic Wars situation re Austen, but it just made the sentence there too convoluted. So, I decided to leave it out, reckoning that some readers would make the connection. I’m so glad you did.

      I found it a wonderful read too. I always wonder why an author writes what they do, but that didn’t spoil my delight in the writing, the story, and the characters.

  3. May 9, 2019 10:55 am

    To date, this is my favourite read of the year. Loved everything about it—the characterisation, the writing style, the wisdom, the glimpses into pre- and post-revolution Russia and the set-up for how everything played out at the end. I agree, too, that it was about resilience and integrity and what makes us human.

    I was so taken with it, in fact, that I’ve since read everything I could find about the author and the book. Amor Towles said that he spent 18 months writing the first draft of this story and two years editing it, which proved to me that writing a good book takes time. (I wish more publishers understood this!)

    P.S. What about that moment right at the end with the telephones? It brought a tear to my eye.

    • May 9, 2019 2:16 pm

      Oh yes, I agree about the set-up for the end, Louise. So we’ll done. I love seeing careful plotting like this. And the telephones. That was wonderful. I was given his Rules of civility a few years ago but haven’t read it. Now I feel I must.

  4. May 9, 2019 9:02 pm

    I’m afraid I’m of the opposite school to all the rest of you, particularly as it’s an American setting his fantasy in Russia. Let the author have his comedy of manners elsewhere. Being detained in a hotel isn’t imprisonment when millions were in camps in Siberia. And being an aristocrat and alive he should have recognized as a blessing – I would have had him slopping out the pigs for his former serfs.

    • May 9, 2019 9:37 pm

      Oh, you’re a hard one Bill!! Haha! Seriously though, I think you should read the book before you pronounce, though I appreciate that may not change your mind, and that you may still align more with my reading group member.

  5. May 9, 2019 9:26 pm

    Super review. You provide a very insightful analysis. I love the Jane Austen comparison. I have heard a lot about this book over the years.

    Limited spaces, such as boarding houses, hotels, prisons, etc. have provided such fertile ground for fiction. When in the hands of a skilled writer, they provide interesting microcosms of the world.

    • May 9, 2019 9:39 pm

      Yes, good point Brian re limited spaces… Like limited time frames? They certainly force a focus don’t they?

  6. May 9, 2019 10:36 pm

    My book group chose this to read a couple of months ago but, knowing I wouldn’t get to that meeting and under the pressure of Stella Prize reading, I set it aside for a later date – seems I should move it back up the pile! (I have read Rules of Civility, which I loved).

    • May 9, 2019 10:48 pm

      Did your group like it Kate? Anyhow, yes, I reckon you should!

      I love your commitment to the prize. My number one reading commitment is always my reading group. I love my group so.

  7. May 10, 2019 6:51 am

    I reviewed this novel on May 15, 2017, and liked it, but subsequent discussion with my son, who is starting a PhD program in Russian Literature, has made me see it in a different light. He hates it, and says that the novel obfuscates and trivializes the suffering and the ideals of that time, kind of like the recent commercial that’s been criticized, in which a 19th-century white American man proposes marriage to an enslaved black woman, or like setting a little comedy of manners in a house in the neighborhood of Auschwitz.

    • May 10, 2019 8:03 am

      Yes, Jeanne, that’s what my book group member thought, pretty much too. I can see their argument, and it can be hard to counter such arguments because you can sound cold or uncaring, but I thought the negatives were on display. There was commentary regarding the corruption and hypocrisy of the regime. You don’t have to write gritty realism, I think, to convey negatives?

  8. May 10, 2019 2:59 pm

    I think your reviews totally amazing, ST: even if the subject matter don’t appeal, the review will always do so. I suspect you’re one of the best reviewers around; and I think that it is a fiendishly difficult thing to do, writing about someone else’s writing in an informative way. I can only say, additionally, that no, you do not have to write gritty realism in order to convey negatives: you have only to say “that being said …”. [grin]

  9. May 10, 2019 8:18 pm

    Ah what a delightful review, Sue.Thank you. And I read all the comments, too.

    I read Towles’ novel many years ago now – I think when it came out and I remember it so fondly. I’ve read plenty of Russian history and I understand about the harsh reality of the Revolution and it’s aftermath just as I understand about the suffering of people during the Napoleonic Wars. But just because those were grim times does not eliminate the fact that people still had parties, fell in love, had babies, and otherwise enjoyed themselves at times, especially if they were essentially cut off from the daily grind of “the people.”

    I think Austen was trying to provide an escape from all that. Many of our US movies during the Depression were escapist fare. I think Towles was different because his was historical fiction rather than truly “of the times” so the question ini his case comes to be one of how “realistic” and true to the times should historical fiction be to merit the word “historical?”

    I haven’t got to Rules of Civility yet. (sigh)

    • May 11, 2019 8:25 am

      Yes, good point Bekah re Austen being “of the times” versus this being historical fiction. I guess for me the fundamental question was not so much how “realistic” this historical fiction work was but what sort of historical fiction it was? I think that in terms of historical fiction it just has to be set in an identifiable, perhaos, past to be designated “historical”? Though I guess as always there are grey lines, since fantasy can be set in the past can’t it?

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