How delightful that in an era as crude as ours this finely composed new novel by Amor Towles stretches out with old-world elegance. “A Gentleman in Moscow” offers a chance to sink back into a lost attitude of aristocracy — equal parts urbane and humane — just what we might expect from the author of that 2011 bestseller “Rules of Civility.” But if Towles’ story is an escape we crave, it is also, ironically, a story of imprisonment.
The book opens a few years after the Russian Revolution, in a period of violent upheaval. A handsome count named Alexander Rostov has been summoned before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs and accused of writing a counterrevolutionary poem. The trial transcript offers an indication of the count’s blithe resistance to the spirit of the times. Imagine a younger, Slavic version of Alexander McCall Smith facing the Bolsheviks. Only high-ranking friends keep him from being thrown against a wall and shot. Instead, he’s declared a “Former Person” and sentenced to life imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol.
Towles observes that “the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home.” But the count’s sentence is hardly the Gulag. After all, the Hotel Metropol is a grand Art Nouveau palace — an actual place, still standing. It was constructed at the turn of the century and soon seized by the communists to house bureaucrats and impress foreign guests. The count, though, is consigned to a tiny room on the top floor, crammed with a few pieces of his fine furniture. This is a character who has “opted for the life of the purposefully unrushed.” He was raised to appreciate the great conveniences of life, such as keeping “a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another.” Now, that extravagant life must somehow be adjusted to the tight confines of a servant’s bedroom.
This is not a novel of thrilling conflicts so much as charming encounters. As the years pass, the count always behaves as a perfect gentleman. He never complains about his confinement — never even admits that it is a confinement. He entertains attractive guests. He spars good-naturedly with a staff member who resents his refined manner. And he even finds himself acting as the father to a young girl whom Towles has called his “Eloise of the Metropol.”
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As prison sentences go, life in the Hotel Metropol sounds a lot harder on the novelist than on the count. For the writer, the task of describing decades in a single building sounds frighteningly cramped. And yet, remarkably, in Towles’ hands, it’s a wonderfully spacious setting. As he creates it, the Hotel Metropol is transfixing, full of colorful characters: some transitory, others permanent; mostly fictional, some historical. Yes, the novel offers more high tea than high adventure, but this is a story designed to make you appreciate your surroundings, to be a person on whom nothing is lost.
The novel’s trickier challenge is the potential for glibness. There could easily have been something unseemly about a light comedy that takes place against the background of two world wars and the fathomless horrors of Stalinism. Towles’ solution is wry understatement that extends to a series of historical footnotes. “Let us concede,” he says at the start of one chapter, “that the early thirties in Russia were unkind.” It’s an approach that allows him to pursue his warmhearted story while acknowledging, with Russian irony, the ocean of suffering taking place all around it.
Admittedly, the whole enterprise depends on how deeply you fall in love with the count. Although Towles tells the story in the third person, there’s clearly some deep sympathy here between the protagonist and the author, who retired from a lucrative career in finance to write fiction. His omniscient narrator is only a few tones away from the count’s own voice — dusted with wit and given to statements of feigned melodrama, such as, “Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all of human interaction.” It’s that crisp, light humor that keeps the count from sounding preachy even as he assumes a kind of quiet authority in an ugly world.
In our own allegedly classless society, we seem to have retained only what’s deplorable about aristocracy — the oppression, the snobbery, the racism — and thrown out those qualities that were worth retaining. Which makes “The Gentleman of Moscow” an endearing reminder of the graciousness of real class. It has nothing to do with money; it’s predicated on the kind of moral discipline that never goes out of style.
Ron Charles reviewed this for The Washington Post.