A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: In for the Count

In the newly Communist Russia of 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, as a gentleman, prides himself on having no occupation, and describes his pastimes as, “dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole”. Found guilty of posing a threat to the ideals of society, he is sentenced to life imprisonment in the Metropol Hotel near Red Square where he has resided for four years: if he sets foot outside, he will be shot. Although still permitted to frequent the hotel’s grand restaurant and bar, he is obliged to vacate his grand suite for a former servant’s room in the attic.

Over some 460 pages, the author sustains a flowery prose with fanciful digressions and far-fetched incidents which chime with the Count’s ebullient eccentricity, all likely to charm some readers but irritate others. Falling at first into the latter category, I abandoned this novel until forced to resume it by a pressing book group deadline which caused me to revise my initial prejudice, although I never came to terms with the intrusive narrator, and the useful but distracting footnotes to explain the history.

After a somewhat turgid start, the author manages to entertain the reader with his ingenuity, provide a very articulate expression of the Count’s thoughts and develop a farce which proves quite effective in revealing the flaws and contradictions of the Soviet system. As party officials begin to wine and dine at the hotel, it is simply a case of one privileged élite replacing another. The ignorant and incompetent are over-promoted for their loyalty to the Party, and bureaucratic measures intended to impose equality have ludicrous consequences. Following a complaint from the waiter whom the Count has imprudently humiliated as regards knowing the correct wine to drink with Latvian stew, an order comes from on high for all the labels to be removed from the bottles in the hotel cellar to destroy any concept of some wines being superior to others – an outrage to a connoisseur of fine wines like the Count, who can of course still detect a superior favourite by the trademark design of the bottle.

This is essentially a soft-centred, escapist read, which gives more space to the count’s eternal word games (“name famous threesomes”, “ a black and white creature”) than to the sufferings of individuals, glossing over the true grimness of life for millions under Stalin. The fate of the young prince who has been reduced to playing for diners in a string quartet is relegated to a footnote: he is questioned in the Lubyanka prison for having committed the crime of possessing a picture of the deposed Tsar which happened to be in one of his books, and banned from ever entering any of the country’s six main cities, while the eminent musician who hired him suffers the worse fate of being sent to a labour camp.

One could argue that this tale of how the count manages to pass thirty years in the hotel, unable to walk through the swing doors of the entrance through which he can glimpse the outside world, is an exploration of the resilience of the human spirit, and a consideration of how one can make something positive out of adversity. Perhaps a period of lockdown is a particularly relevant time to read it!

Since, the Russians have tended to restore and value some of their great buildings from the past, or emulate them “for the people” as in the Moscow metro system, it is interesting to look up online images of the Metropol hotel as it is today.

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