Reviewed by Beth Kelley
The Metropol Hotel stands at the center of Moscow, mere blocks from the Kremlin. From its windows over Theatre Square, a careful observer watches the occasional stray spectator jog up the steps to the Bolshoi, just a few minutes late to the night’s performance. A fortress of elegance, extravagance and taste, the Metropol buzzes day and night with the activity of those who stroll through constantly revolving doors. Whether enjoying a meal cooked with the finest ingredients and harmonized with the perfect wine in the Boyarsky restaurant, buying a bouquet of flowers from the resident florist to flawlessly suit any occasion, or “scuffing the parquet” in the ballroom, one can enjoy the lively spirit of both the hotel and its guests. At least that was the case before the revolution…
Amor Towles’ latest work of historical fiction, A Gentleman in Moscow opens as Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, where he has resided in luxury for the past four years. At each turn of the expansive hotel, the Count illustrates a transition from grandeur to what can only be described as a shell of the past. But, if the hotel itself has fallen from its former glory, those who occupy it have yet to do the same. Set against a stark Soviet background, Emile the chef ’s eccentric flair and Andre the Maître d’hôtel’s otherworldly grace and knowledge of wines seem all the more magnificent. Soon, however, the walls begin to close in on Count Rostov’s little room in the belfry. He finds himself counting the seconds to each chime of his twice tolling clock. But, just as he his morale falters, a young girl with a penchant for yellow enters his life and allows him to rediscover all that the hotel holds for him.
For Towles, rich description is insufficient for his characters. Each element of their personas requires a fistful of metaphors, a few anecdotes, and perhaps a literary allusion or two, such that to capture a man’s hands requires no less than half a page of detail. He includes statements like the following:
“had he been a pianist, Andrey could have easily straddled a twelfth. Had he been a puppeteer, he could have performed the sword fight between Macbeth and McDuff as all three witches looked on. But Andrey was neither a pianist nor a puppeteer— at least not in the traditional sense. He was the captain of the Boyarsky, and one watched on in wonder as his hands fulfilled their purpose at every turn.”
The variety of associations that Towles provides to describe each of his characters allows a reader to imagine these actors so vividly that we feel as though we know them personally. Understanding their history and growth over the 30-year span of the book, readers come to share the Count’s sense of nostalgia when he looks back on his first decade in the hotel.
To write about the first half of the 20th century in Moscow requires an understanding of both imperial Russian culture as well as the progression of Soviet politics, something which Towles clearly masters. Towles pays homage to the great Russian writers and composers, from Chekhov to Tchaikovsky, in unexpected ways. Whether referencing famous literary scenes to supplement his descriptions or scolding his daughter for using a copy of Anna Karenina to prop up a bureau because, “Anna Karenina would never have put you under a bureau just because you happened to be as thick as Montaigne.” In one particularly memorable scene, Count Rostov schools a few foreign journalists in Russia’s contributions to the world, including the assertion that Chekhov and Tolstoy were the “bronze bookends on the mantelpiece of the narrative.” He continues of these artists by asking, “who, I ask you, has exhibited better mastery of the shorter form than Chekhov and his flawless little stories? …While at the other extreme: Can you conceive of a work greater in scope than War and Peace? One that moves so deftly from the parlor to the battlefield and back again?” Even the Count’s full name, Alexander Ilyich Rostov, can be seen as a nod to the Rostov family prominent in War and peace.
Taking on early Soviet society, Towles manages to write about the struggle for power following Stalin’s death as one would describe a cocktail party. He remarks on the subtleties of interactions. Party members leave Khrushchev a seat at the head of the table, rather than the top position in state politics. In doing so, the novel remains lighthearted while incorporating its tumultuous surroundings. Simultaneously, Towles does the Russian population justice by stepping back to appreciate the profound impact that these petty men’s whims had on the country. After a grand display to mark the transition to nuclear power that involved first sending Moscow into blackout, Towles visits individual families and notes the ways that the outage affected them. The world through Count Rostov’s experiences, relationships, and romances, distracts from the surrounding nation’s descent into Soviet bleakness. Towles captures the subtle creeping of totalitarianism so perfectly that even readers take each escalation of control as normal. One day an incompetent waiter from the downstairs Piazza is promoted “on recommendation” to work in the Count’s beloved Boyarsky. He eventually replaces the selection of wines with two options—red or white—by complaint that a wine list’s range of prices is contrary to revolutionary ideas. From there on, readers note his ascension in the hotel only by the titles others use to address him. These unqualified promotions become such a normal part of life that the count leaves them un-discussed.
While the Soviet Union seems like a less than ideal place for an overwhelmingly optimistic novel, Towles manages to put a positive twist on even the most depressing thoughts. A major element of the count’s character is his uniquely philosophic nature. That, combined with the kind of free time known only to those on house arrest, allows him to step back and reflect on the misfortunes he faces 7 in life. Readers empathize with the exuberant count, feel his pain, and subsequently come to understand the positivity in a situation alongside him. The details of the book, in such instances as Chef Emile asking a whistling waiter if he is the “Commissar of Ditty-whistling,” makes light of the rapid changes surrounding the hotel by playing on the absurdity of Soviet jargon. In an all-too-real reflection of Soviet culture at the time, Towles’ characters joke about the very administration oppressing them.
A Gentleman in Moscow combines a whimsical cast of characters, reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with the drama of a Soviet spy novel. Towles enchants readers with everything from tales of princes and princesses to political satire, resulting in a truly magnificent and bitter-sweet work.