Book Club Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

December 2018 – A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

blog by Cindy Bushey

Anyone who has ever attempted to read any of the great works of Russian literature such Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, Dr. Zhivago by Pasternak, or The Guglag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn, would instantly recognize the style and technique of author Amor Towles’s new best seller A Gentleman In Moscow.  It truly reads as if penned by a Russian novelist.  Zion’s readers explored Gentleman as their December selection, and many found the painstakingly detailed descriptions tinged with typical Russian black humor very heavy going.  The novel’s story line follows a Russian Count’s house arrest that confines him to the Metropol Hotel in Moscow indefinitely.  How he adapts to that confinement and loss of material things while joyfully living a very full life is the adventure of the book.

In interviews, Mr. Towles (American born and bred) has admitted a fascination with Russian literature and a deliberate plan for this novel.  He envisions its “geometry” as a diamond on its side with the story line beginning to expand once the Count enters the hotel.  The expansion contains details concerning people, rooms, events, and memories that are difficult for the reader to grasp and retain.  However, in the second half of the book, the story successively narrows and all those details play a part in the Count’s life and how he lives it right up to the final page.  The author even reflects this expansion and narrowing in the time frame of the chapters.  In the first half of the novel, the observant reader can see (although none of Zion’s readers noticed this) a doubling effect – one day after arrest, two days, four days, three weeks, six weeks, etc.  Then in the second half of the book, the effect reverses and chapter time frames are halved.  It’s an intriguing method and one which the author recognizes might not appeal to all readers.

Certainly, some of Zion’s readers had a hard time just reading the book due to vocabulary, philosophical quotes, and French references (turns out Russian authors often composed in French, viewing it as the language of literature).  Other readers reveled in the descriptions, conversations, and characters.  To find an aristocrat who has lost his ancestral home to revolution and then is classified a “former person” and thus an enemy of the state takes one back to a different era but also offers pointed parallels to present day.  The Count’s gentlemanly code of behavior contrasts severely with the crass, uncivilized behavior of the post-revolutionary Russia guided by Stalin.  In Count Alexander Rostov, our readers met a refined, polite, mentally sharp man who meets the twists and turns of his life and country with good humor and civility at all times.  As one reader noted, at no time did the Count ever express a political opinion in the book even though great political turmoil was taking place in Russia through the 1900’s.  Yet, a few of our readers found this isolation from the real events of the day took away from their enjoyment of the story.  How could the author avoid what was happening outside the hotel doors?  Probably through very deliberate choice – the story concerns the Count’s reactions to his life events; the events in his country are important only as they affect him.  So, a reader who enjoys history may only find a small part of the great Russian story in this book.

However, many events in the book are real.  The Metropol still operates as a high-class hotel in Moscow.  Certainly, the literary persons referenced and their works are actual.  House arrests did happen, although it was more likely that the aristocrat would have been shot than arrested.  Yet, who you knew in the political apparatus often did affect the outcome of your particular problem (and still today it is who you know, not what, that often determines outcomes).  The fairy tale of the Count’s life, his ability to find mental stimulation and physical exercise in repeatedly smaller quarters, his forced adoption of a young girl and successful raising of Sophia (shades of little Eloise growing up in the Plaza Hotel in New York), his transformation into the best waiter on the Metropol’s staff, his relationships with other people in the hotel, all conducted with astounding civility, are an absorbing story.  It sparked quite a bit of discussion among Zion’s readers concerning the lack of civility in public discourse today in our country as well as the lack of polite conversation in personal relationships.  It appears that for some people civility is as extinct as the old Russian aristocrats.  It was pointed out by one of our members that the Pennsylvania Bar Association actually enacted Rules of Civility about ten years ago in an effort to establish and maintain civility among its members as they practiced law.  Another member suggested that the Bolshevik new objective reality after the revolution with its disinformation campaigns and fake news should give us pause.  How susceptible are we to a made-up reality trumpeted over and over until it gains a life of its own?  Perhaps we need to read history in order to avoid repeating it.  Or at least read novels such as these to recognize how far we have come from the days of gentlemanly behavior.

Mr. Towles also underlines in his novel how much can be achieved with civility, how easy it can be to give up and indulge in depression, how a large life can be lived in a small area, how our treatment of people can affect their lives and our own.  The essence of a gentlemen as lived by the Count was to put others first – their comfort before his own – and this enriched his life and had far-reaching consequences.  For those who could persevere through the first half of his book, much like the Count’s perseverance, the reward of the second half opened unanticipated avenues of introspection and discussion.  Indeed, our readers’ discussion of this novel might have been one of the most serious and enlightening discussions we have had.  Certainly, A Gentleman in Moscow is not to everyone’s taste.  Yet, after our discussion, our readers are very interested to see how it will be converted to television or the movies as now anticipated. Our votes for this book produced the most even split we have recorded with 4 readers giving it one thumb down, 1 giving it a knuckle down, 3 giving it one thumb up, and 4 giving it two thumbs up.  As one reader said, you either loved the book or you hated it.  However, the discussion was enjoyed by all.  We meet in January to discuss The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles.