FAW Chicago, IL Est. 1922
FAW Book Reviews

A Gentleman in Moscow
By Amor Towles

Hardcover 480 pages, Viking (September, 2016)

Reviewed by Shirley Baugher
October, 2017

The year is 1922. The Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat For Internal Affairs has just sentenced Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to spend the rest of his life inside the luxurious Hotel Metropol in Moscow for writing the poem "Where Is It Now?", which dared to ask the question, "where is our purpose now?" In imposing the sentence, the prosecutor pronounced that the Count had succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class - and now posed a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. While the committee's inclination would have been to have Rostov blindfolded and put before a ring squad - or more mercifully sent to Siberia, inexplicably, the Committee sentenced the Count to a lifetime of incarceration in the Metropol.

The Count is not unfamiliar with the Metropol. He has lived there in the elegant suite 317 for four years, following the confiscation of his estate by the Bolsheviks. But he is not allowed to return to his former suite. Instead, he is sent to a small attic room, 100 square feet, formerly used by servants of wealthy visitors. He is allowed a few possessions from his old life: his bed, a magnificent old clock that chimes twice a day, his father's writing desk, a stately chair on which he sits to pen his observations of the new Russia, and his father's books, one of which contains more than just words.

Each day he descends from his attic quarters to the Metropol's lobby where he reads the newspaper and watches. He mingles with a variety of Russian citizens: some denizens of the Metropol, others outsiders; and with people from the world beyond Russia who have come to witness the transformation. In trying to adjust to his new situation, the Count tells himself that "if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them" and that "imagining what might happen if one's circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness."

The Hotel Metropol is a grand hotel. It has a cocktail bar - the Shalyapin, one of the nest restaurants in Moscow - the Boyarsky whose chef stands at five foot five and weighs 200 pounds, a more casual restaurant - the Piazza, a barbershop, a flower shop, a full- time seamstress, and a variety of meeting rooms and ballrooms. There is a lot of life in these places.

The Count has many adjustments he must make during the more than 30 that he ultimately spends in the Hotel. It is not always easy. One night, overcome by boredom and a sense of hopelessness, Rostov decides to kill himself by jumping off the roof of the Metropol. He is stopped when the hotel's handyman, Abram, appears at his elbow and speaks his name. Abram shares some honey produced by bees he has kept on the roof. The honey has the taste of the apples from the orchards where the Count grew up and, reliving those memories, Rostov finds the resolve to go on living. He takes control of his life, he uses his knowledge of proper manners and serving techniques to become the headwaiter at the Boyarksy. He develops friendships with the chef at the restaurant and the maitre di'. With the help of Marina, the hotel's seamstress, Rostov learns to sew (a necessity you will discover when reading the book.) He develops a relationship with Anna Urbanova, a famous Russian actress, and he befriends nine-year-old Nina Kulikova, who is temporarily living in the hotel with her father and who introduces the Count to all of the secrets the Hotel has to offer by virtue of a key she has managed to purloin. In return, the Count shares with Nina his wisdom and his affection. A lifelong friendship begins that enriches the Rostov's life in ways that he could never have imagined.

In the meantime, the Count's college friend Mischka shows up at the Hotel while he is visiting Moscow to help plan the inaugural Congress of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. Mischka, who is always pacing, talks to the Count of his battles he constantly faces against censorship. He suggests that Rostov's confinement might be for the best since Russia is systematically destroying itself. He is convinced their country's great contribution to the world is destruction. He notes, "As a people, we Russians have proven unusually adept at destroying that which we have created." The arrival of Mischka causes the Count to look back at his former life and gives us some history and context for the changing political environment described during the course of the novel.

Throughout the book we learn a lot about the changes in Russian life and politics. One example involves wine and the Boyarsky. The Count, a wine and food connoisseur, dines at the Boyarsky most evenings and is very selective about his wine. One evening in 1924, the Count orders a bottle of Barolo and is told his choices are a red or a white. Asking for the restaurant manager, the Count is taken to the Hotel's wine cellar, housing more than 100,000 bottles, every one of them now without a label. Why? A complaint was led with Comrade Teodorov, the Commissioner of Food, claiming that the existence of a wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution: that it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators. And so, the labels are removed. But justice is served in 1930 when a member of the Central Committee tries unsuccessfully to order a bottle of Bordeaux for the new French ambassador. Without labels, there are only red and white. Shortly thereafter, wines with labels could once again be found in the Metropol's cellar.

Nina reappears in the Count's life late in the book when she brings her infant daughter So a to the hotel and asks that Rostov keep her just for a few days. Nina has married a dissident who is arrested and sent to Siberia to do hard labor. Nina plans to join him and find a job and a place to live for the family. Rostov agrees to keep the infant short term, but Nina never returns; and the Count must then raise Sofia as his own.

Sofia grows up to be a beautiful young woman and a talented pianist. She is so good she is invited to participate in an international good will concert in Paris, an opportunity Rostov uses to arrange for her to escape after the performance. Through an American friend, he gets asylum for her in America. And it is not only Sofia's escape he engineers as you will discover. The last scenes of the novel offer a fitting conclusion to the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov and his time as a "gentleman in Moscow."