Amor Towles’ A Gentleman In Moscow is a strange one. It is a strange one as a book and it is a strange one to review.
Let me start with the book. It came highly recommended. What is it? Well it is a beautifully written novel. Wonderful prose. Full of insights about history and politics and economics and class and love.
At the heart of it all is Count Alexander Rostov. He is the gentleman and in 1922 is is given a life sentence by the incoming Bolsheviks, not to Siberia but to the Hotel Metropol just across from the Kremlin. He is almost a library and a sage who can turn his hand to anything, including parenthood in the strangest of ways. More than anything else he is a charming man. A gentleman. Easy to spend a book with.
Confining himself to one building, big as it might be, Amor Towles has done a great job to give us 462 pages over 31 years. He has filled a book with genres - part history, part political, part philosophical, part romance, part espionage.
It is, however, bereft of plot. That at times proved a hindrance to me fully loving the book. At times I wasn’t gripped.
I felt that in its scope - geographical, historical, political and relational - that it might be to my 2021 holiday what Colum McCann’s Apeirogon was to 2020. Sadly not.
It was stimulating though. For the first time in my life I considered the geographical vastness of Russia and how little I know about it or the people who live in it.
Rostov was thought provoking. I guess the over riding idea is found in “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The Count certainly does master a hotel, communism and everything else thrown at him and that speaks of wisdom, resilience and imagination.
I was also taken by the battle with time. Towles has set this book in that century where values, ambitions and priorities were going through a bigger revolution than the Bolshevik one. “When the Count was a young man he prided himself on the fact that he was unmoved by the ticking of the clock.” In the early years of the 20th century it seems that people “generally spent their days in the pursuit of the second hand. Rostov had opted for “the life of the purposely unrushed.”
I was also taken and challenged by “...what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”
It is almost like a book of Proverbs. I enjoyed them very much but there were times when I wasn’t excited about the paragraphs between the poetic wonders.
A Gentleman in Moscow might not be for everyone but maybe everyone will have to read it to find out if it for them or not. Strange!