The Times called it ‘a book to spark joy‘ and I can’t think of a better way to describe it — ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ is a remarkable book.
The story begins at the trial of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov in 1922. He is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal and is placed under house arrest at the Hotel Metropole. There he stays for more than 30 years.
Now, I’m not sure this is the most promising plot line for a novel but rest assured ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ is a masterpiece. Exquisite writing, a compelling historical backdrop, a narrative that beautifully threads unrelated events together and a truly delightful cast of characters lead by the inimitable Count Rostov.
I can’t recall a character I enjoyed meeting more than Count Alexander Rostov. Overflowing with charm, generosity and wit — Rostov’s open-hearted enthusiasm for life fills the pages of the story. From the first he considers that “a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them” and this attitude sets his course as events unfold.
There’s good humour and even comedy throughout — some of it laugh-out-loud. Take this extract: Rostov is led by a young child to a hideout above the ballroom balcony as the First Congress of the Moscow Branch of the All-Russian Union of Railway Workers gets underway below. The assembly get through their initial agenda quickly enough only to be stymied by a single sentence:
It was a proposal to amend the Union’s charter — or more precisely, the seventh sentence of the second paragraph which the secret secretary now read in full.
Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence — one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard. For its apparent purpose was to catalogue without fear or hesitation every single virtue of the Union including but not limited to: it unwavering shoulders, it’s undaunted steps, the clanging of its hammers in summer, the shovelling of its cold in winter, and the hopeful sound of its whistles in the night. But in the concluding phrases of this impressive sentence, at the very culmination as it were, was the observation that through their tireless efforts, the Railway Workers of Russia “facilitate communication and trade across the provinces.”
After all the buildup, it was a bit of an anti-climax, conceded the Count.‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ – Amor Towles P.68
This leads to a vigorous debate and more than a few verb substitutions before ‘to enable and ensure’ is passed to ‘thunderous applause’. Such a brilliant scene which ends with Rostov visiting the hotel’s seamstress after splitting the seat of pants (again).
This is a novel to savour and cherish. Despite slowing my reading to a crawl to draw out the end, I finished this morning. Wanting more, I simply turned back to the first page and started again.
A modern masterpiece.