In these ungracious times, Amor Towles is striking a blow for civility.
That’s not necessarily the goal of his latest novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” about a Russian count confined to life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. Nor was it the aim of his first book, “Rules of Civility,” which takes its title from an earnest tract copied by a teenage George Washington and follows the social and career ascent of a young woman in 1930s Manhattan.
But the concept of civility intrigues him, he says, because there’s a deeper and more meaningful level to it.
“In the contemporary world, we think of politeness as surface behavior, like frosting — it’s sweet and attractive and finishes off the cake,” says Towles, who appears at Miami Book Fair Nov. 20. “But 19th century nobility and the enlightened thinkers and stoics before them viewed manners in a very different way. To them, manners are an outward expression of an inward struggle. It’s mastery, in essence, over the seven deadly sins. Anger, gluttony, lust — they believed all those impulses could be mastered, that manners were designed as a means of helping you with the mastery.”
Viewed from that perspective, the story of Count Alexander Rostov feels even more tragic (though Towles’ urbane, witty narration prevents the novel from even touching on bleakness, even during the worst of the Stalin era). In 1922, considered a threat to the new Bolshevik government, the count escapes a date with a firing squad — even Party members are not immune to his charms, despite his assertion that “It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations” — and is sentenced to spend the rest of his days at the Metropol, his latest place of residence. If he leaves the premises, he’ll be shot.
Unlike the ambitious Katey Kontent in “Rules of Civility,” who’s climbing Manhattan’s social network, the Count slides down the scale almost immediately. But life in the hotel, located in Theatre Square across from the Kremlin, turns out to be rich and rewarding. The Count sustains friendships, a romance, even fatherhood. He uses his impeccable manners to carve out a whole world in one building. Throughout, he wrestles with the absurdities of the Communist regime (at one point, all labels are scraped off the bottles of the hotel’s impressive wine cellar because “the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution”). The novel, which was shortlisted for a Kirkus Prize, is an elegant, wise testimony to the beauty and necessity of human connection.
A Wall Street director of research with a 20-year career in the financial industry, Towles first passed through the grand hotel in 1998. When the idea for “A Gentleman in Moscow” came to him more than 10 years later, he decided to return.
What he learned was you really could live out a life there, if you had to.
“I stayed for a week and researched its history,” says Towles, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. “I found all these personal accounts from people who stayed there — e.e. cummings, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, journalists. Anybody famous who came to Moscow drank or slept or ate there.
“The hotel had a much more colorful history than I had imagined. The reality was more crazy than my fantasy. It had the first movie theater in Moscow. They were going to have an entire opera house in the hotel, but the plan had to be scrapped.”
He’s fascinated with the swift, monumental changes in the Soviet Union after the first World War.
“Russia was the last to leave the 19th century and the most rapid to enter the mandates of the 20th century,” he says. “It was not an evolution. It was not a slow process. The mandates of the Bolsheviks were rapid industrialism, mandatory universal schooling, equal rights for women. This dream of flattening the economic playing field and the move toward secularism, whether or not they were achieved, was the spiritual makeup of 20th century modernism. ... It was a forced flip of the switch. And I was very conscious that the Count had a 19th-century sensibility and would find himself on the other side of that switch. And of course there were unintended consequences for the Bolsheviks. That’s the reality of human progress, that constant bittersweet dynamic of loss and gain.”
Writing a book with essentially one setting — though there is a brief, thrilling interlude outside the hotel and an exquisite, perfect ending — didn’t faze Towles. In fact, writing is more or less worry-free for him.
“I’m 52. I had a 20-year career, I have two children,” he says. “The advantage of writing later in my life is that I already had a whole mature realm of accomplishments and responsibilities, an identity outside of being a writer. When I sat down to write ‘Rules of Civility’ I didn’t write it for anybody but myself. I wasn’t trying to make my mark or make money. I wasn’t anxious about feeding my kids or whether my father would be proud of me.
“At 25, I would’ve been much more anxious about matching the success of the first book. But if you have two kids in their teens, it’s hard to be arrogant about anything. They’re constantly putting you in your place.”
Meet the author
Who: Amor Towles with Nathan Hill and Affinity Konar
When: 10 a.m. Nov 20
Where: Auditorium, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami