Wednesday, December 6, 2017

December Book Review Club: A Gentleman in Moscow

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@Barrie Summy


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By Amor Towles
Viking, 2016

In 1922, an insouciant Moscow aristocrat appears before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. As a threat to Communist ideals, he should be executed. Fortunately, he is the author of a celebrated 1913 poem many viewed as a call to revolution, so his sentence is relaxed. Instead of dying, he is ordered to spend the rest of his life in the formerly luxurious Metropol Hotel, where he has occupied a suite for the previous four years.

“Make no mistake,” the presiding officer concludes, “should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot. Next matter.”

The record of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s appearance before the committee, set in a utilitarian typewriter font, occupies the first three pages of A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW. Having heard little about the book, only that it was wonderful, I read this, decided the book might be depressing, and set it aside for a day when I didn’t need cheering up. (ARE there such days anymore? If you read newspapers, I mean.)

I could not have been more wrong. This book isn’t only wonderful. It’s delightful.

Everything depends on the character of Rostov: beautifully educated, well-traveled, urbane, amused, and kind. He reacts to his sentence as many of us would, welcoming it as a chance to get some reading done. Ejected from his suite and relegated to a tiny room in the attic with all his books and a few beloved bits of antique furniture, he settles down to read his father’s copy of Montaigne’s essays. We are with him intimately as he slogs through page after page, watching the clock. The book turns out to be the perfect size for propping up a wobbly chest of drawers.

Life awaits outside his attic room. Even in an era of revolutionary seediness, the Metropol’s staff manages to approximate the days of old. There’s a barber, a seamstress, kitchen staff, wait staff, concierge, and other residents, mostly party officials and their families. It’s a whole world, and we fling ourselves into it without a hint of claustrophobia.  

The crux of the story arrives with Nina, the nine-year-old daughter of some commissar living in the hotel. She has a skeleton key that opens every door, but better yet she has attitude. Before long, Rostov is a partner in crime, exploring forbidden rooms in the cellars or splitting the seat of his pants to eavesdrop on a party committee. He becomes Nina’s confidant and protector, and when she is a grown-up party functionary he renders her a service that changes both their lives.
Our narrator takes us outside the Metropol occasionally, but we’re always happy to return. By the end of the book, we could find our way up the stairs and through the halls blindfolded, and we want to spend as much time as possible with Rostov and his cohabitants. There’s everything in the Metropol: quiet humor, slapstick, love, sex, friendship, intrigue, and a hidden pair of dueling pistols that wait an entire book to live up to Chekhov’s instructions. (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”)
A less depressing book you will never find.
(Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday. Nobody cares if I review it. Now, about net neutrality . . . )