Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Week's Vacation with A Gentleman in Moscow

Last week a perfectly marvelous new novel was launched into the world. "A Gentleman in Moscow" defies categorizing. No simple genre classification could contain the wealth of knowledge and pleasure that readers will gain from taking their time and savoring this literary masterpiece.

The author, Amor Towles, wowed the critics with his debut, "The Rules of Civility," which came out a few years ago and has been optioned for a film. I enjoyed it very much, but this new book is written on an entirely different level. Isn't it a joy when a writer gets better with age?

Product Details
When I first laid eyes on the cover of the book, I made the incorrect assumption that I would be delving into a John Le Carre type of espionage tale. And yes, there certainly are thrilling moments of political intrigue. But there is so much more.  You will actually witness a half century of Russian history through the eyes of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, as companionable a fictional character as you'll ever meet. You will be treated to a cri de Coeur for a way of life that may be obsolete but not forgotten.
Count Rostov appears before the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs in June, 1922, charged with penning a poem that might be considered subversive. The Count, a member of the "leisure class," had exiled himself to Paris at the height of the revolution, suddenly returning to Moscow to take up residence in the luxurious Metropol Hotel, after the destruction of his family's country estate.
Upon questioning from the panel now deciding his fate, Rostov is asked about the nature of his occupation. He replies imperiously that, "It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations."
"Very well then. How do you spend your time?" his interrogator queries.
Rostov states, "Dining, discussing. Reading. Reflecting. The usual rigmarole."
How can you not love this guy?
Rostov is found guilty and, oh joy, he is sentenced to a lifetime of confinement in, you guessed it, The Metropol. If he attempts to leave, he will be shot on sight. And so begins our thirty year relationship with the count and his cadre of fascinating friends, the seamstress, the waiters, chefs, concierge, and janitors who will always revere him as "your excellency." Though his circumstances are grossly reduced, from a luxury suite on the fourth floor to a single room with a closet in the attic, he is revered for his discernment, wit, and seeming blindness to class structure.
Over time the count, because of his intellect, curiosity, and kindness, thrives in confinement, managing to meet and form long-term relationships with artists, poets, and politicians from around the world. He nurtures a lengthy love affair with a famous beauty, the actress Anna Urbanova, and even becomes a doting father.
Towles subtly contrasts the idyllic life within the hotel to the bare existence of the Russian people as they struggle under Lenin, Stalin, and the rapacious building of the Soviet Union. The count represents a time when Russia was in its golden period, when the appreciation of glorious music, literature, and creativity was a raison d'etre. And though he eventually becomes an employee at the Metropol, he cultivates pride in every task required of him, exalting the menial.
Amor Towles has pulled off something rare in the book world today, a unique story, luminously written, deliciously subversive, and inhabited by people we wish we could spend more time with. I can't wait to share my copy so that I can talk about it with you. "A Gentleman in Moscow" has now become my second favorite book of the year after Nathan Hill's "The Nix."

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