In 2016, this second novel by a New York “investment professional” was released by Penguin Random House in hardback. It is one of those books that is a word of mouth success and has now sold around two million copies since publication. Although well-reviewed at the time and a Waterstones Book of the Month for two months, as well as being bought for a TV series with Kenneth Branagh, it remained a bit of a connoisseur’s choice.
I’d heard good things about it and even given it to an acquaintance without having read it myself and then it was one of my book group’s choices last year. When it arrived, it looked a bit disappointing, even though garlanded with enthusiastic review quotes. It has a dull black, white and grey cover, with an old gent looking out over a balcony, enlivened only by the gold-embossed title. The back-cover blurb doesn’t entice either.
But let none of this put you off; this book is a real treat.
Alexander Ilyich Rostov is an aristocrat who came back to Moscow after the Revolution and has lived in the Hotel Metropol for four years when he is invited to an interview with the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. No-one at the hotel expects him to return from this “interview,” which is in fact a trial; the likelihood is that he will be shot.
But he is saved by a “revolutionary” poem which has his name on it and is returned to the Metropol, where he is sentenced to live under house arrest for the rest of his days. But not in his former luxurious suite. His furniture and belongings – such as will fit – are taken up to servants’ quarters in the attic, where he has one poky room.
But Rostov is a man of infinite resource and sagacity and makes one little room an everywhere.
Time passes and he ages and over the years makes indestructible friendships with members of staff, an American diplomat, a doomed prince, a famous actress and even the Chief Administrator of the security special branch at the Kremlin (leading after hundreds of pages to one of the funniest lines in the book).
For life at the Metropol is full of visitors and guests from all over the world; it is the very essence of cosmopolitanism, even during the most restrictive years of the new régime. But the most influential presences in Rostov’s new life are two little girls: first Nina, the nine-year-old daughter of a Ukrainian bureaucrat, who opens up the secrets of the hotel to the Count and gives him a passkey that opens all doors. Then, much later, her daughter Sofia, whom she leaves in his care and to whom he becomes a surrogate father.
No detail is wasted in this highly-wrought novel, with its meticulously constructed architecture. There is no set-up without its payoff, though you might have to wait many pages and passing years for it.
Rostov becomes head waiter at the hotel’s premier restaurant and his relationship with the chef and the maitre d’ – the “triumvirate” – underpins his life, as a man in reduced circumstances who is always nevertheless a gentleman. And among his many personal resources, he has a stack of gold coins hidden in his desk, which comes in handy when he is plotting something.
As he does, magnificently, in the long finale, which builds to a pitch, as Rostov takes advantage of Sofia’s playing the piano in a concert in Paris, utilising all his contacts, to give her – and himself – a new life.
I have just read Amor Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility, which couldn’t be more different. It is set in New York in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s and the protagonist is a young woman. The only thing that links them is that perhaps they both deal with how people should behave in difficult situations, even though in the first book they don’t always manage to live up to their own standards.
In A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles pulls off that difficult trick of creating a genuinely good person, who is never dull. Whether shooting a fellow aristocrat who has cheated on his sister or not shooting an inferior who has tried to make his life a misery for years, Rostov abides inimitably by his own “rules of civility.” He might throw himself off the hotel’s roof or sit up there eating honey from the handyman’s bees.
He might observe a trio of escaped geese on a floor of the hotel or play invented word games over dinner with Sofia or make love to a beautiful woman. He might identify a mystery ingredient in a dish created by the chef or steal a passport from a hotel guest. Whatever he does, it is the essence of cool; only Nina and Sofia ever dumbfound him.
Amor Towles’ sensibility is as subtle and fine as Count Rostov’s palate. Whatever he writes next, I will read it.