A gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles, author; Nicholas Guy Smith, narrator
How does one begin to describe this book and do it justice? The time frame is the Roaring Twenties in the United States, but in Moscow, it is a time of adjustment after the Bolshevik Revolution and the murder of the Tsar. In one place freedom abounds and in the other freedom is being curtailed. The setting is the magnificent Metropol Hotel, in Moscow. Close to the Bolshoi, the Kremlin and the Red Square, it is a tourist’s dream, even today. In its heyday, the Metropol was home to aristocrats, the rich and the famous. After the Russian Revolution, it became the permanent prison for our main character, Count Alexander Ilyitch Rostov.
The Count was born in Russia, in 1889. He left in 1914, and spent four years in Paris, after a poem entitled “Where is it Now” was credited to him. He was suspected of encouraging unrest with its message. He loved his country and returned in 1918, after WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution. He took up residence in The Metropol Hotel. In 1922, he came to the attention of the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs under suspicion for the very same poem. They understood why he fled Russia and wondered why he had returned. These appeared to be small-minded men who were overcome with suspicion, often without cause. They wondered if he had come back to foment unrest and resist the new government. They judged him to be guilty of not adjusting to his station in life as a commoner, as a member of the proletariat. It was the Committee’s belief that he still enjoyed being addressed as the Count or as His Excellency. There was no appeal process. He was sentenced to live out his life in the hotel. If he stepped outside, he was threatened with death.
His rooms at the hotel, in Suite 317, were quite comfortable, furnished with the elegant furniture of his ancestors and the memorabilia that connected him to them, so he wasn’t too disturbed by the sentence, nor could he do anything about it if he was so inclined. As an Aristocrat, he was schooled in the proper behavior and conduct befitting those of his station. Educated royally, he had impeccable manners and a vast knowledge of life and lore. He would adjust. However, when he returned to his rooms, he was surprised to find that he was being forcibly removed from his suite to a tiny, neglected room in the belfry of the hotel. He was being put in his place. The room was barely big enough to hold a bed, desk, chair and dresser. He accepted all of the affronts with good grace and calmness, as befitting one born to the aristocracy. A display of emotion or an act of rudeness would be unacceptable. The Count never showed his dismay with his position and soon actually created an environment that was quite pleasant for him. His routine consisted of breakfasting, reading the newspaper, weekly haircuts, sorties with women guests who were attracted to him, meetings with people and even engaging in the tutoring of one Russian dignitary. Soon he was fully immersed in the hotel life. As he grew closer to the staff, he began working in the hotel. He became the head waiter presiding over the Boyarsky. He had impeccable standards and exquisite taste which could be put to good use in a work environment devoted to service.
One day, while dining, according to his routine, he became acquainted with another resident of the hotel. She was a young girl who was very precocious and very mature beyond her meager years. She wanted to learn how to behave like a princess. Nine year old Nina and Alexander became fast friends and companions, in spite of the more than two decades that separated their ages. He schooled her in manners and other worldly matters since her diplomat father was often off travelling. In much the same way, he also tutored a Russian Commissar on how to appear to be more cultured, more worldly, even though the Count had been imprisoned ostensibly for what the Russian now hoped to become.As the years passed, Nina moved on and they lost touch. He had no way to meet her again since although she could leave the hotel, he could not. It was his prison. Then, suddenly, she appeared and asked him for an enormous favor. Alexander was not apt to refuse to help anyone, but he would never turn down his dear friend Nina who had now grown into a woman with a child. Although he gave little thought to how he would handle her request, he agreed. She deposited her 5 or 6 year old daughter “on his doorstep” and left, promising to return within a short time, probably in just a few weeks. She was just going to Siberia to join her husband and find a suitable place for them to live. Although they had been good comrades, her husband had fallen under the suspicion of the petty bourgeoisie in charge and was sentenced to serve several years at hard labor.
The child’s name was Sofia. A relationship grew between Sofia and Alexander that is both charming and tender. Their devotion and loyalty to each other existed on the one hand, and on the other was their camaraderie and happy display of respect exhibited in marvelous conversations and games they engaged in together. Sofia had no desire to leave the hotel, although it was not her prison. As the decades passed, Rostov soon became the doting parent, a father to a daughter, an opportunity he never dreamed he would have. They were happy together and their life seemed to be one of contentment, in spite of its constraints. Their relationship, escapades and their bantering back and forth added lightness to the novel and to the obvious oppression in the country.
There are references to theater, music and literature sprinkled amply throughout the text and it is so beautifully researched that the novel itself seems real. It is written in a prose that leaps off the page as it magically paints images in the mind of the reader. Every description literally hypnotizes the reader with its beauty. If only we could all speak with such sophistication, class and control.
Although the Russians wanted their freedom from the Tsar, the novel shows the creeping authoritarianism of the Russian Government that soon invaded all of their lives. Cosmetic enhancements were considered unnecessary. Religious establishments were closed. In the hotel, many employees and management were replaced by members of the Communist Party, those who were once pencil pushers and who were disgruntled with their own position in life, those who were jealous of those who pretended to be or were of a higher class then they were, and now they assumed the same mantle of superiority. Dossiers on their underling’s behavior were created by these petty rulers.
As the Count continued to serve the needs of the hotel guests, he also served his own. He made strategic acquaintances with those in high places and was fortunate enough to find them helpful when he was in need of assistance.
There was one thorn in the bush, and that was the character known as The Bishop. He had a chip on his shoulder, resented the Count and was typical of the petty bourgeoisie. He was, suspicious and bitter. When he became the general manager of the hotel, he was vindictive and made more and more demands that he expected to be met. There was to be no flagrant exhibition of food or live flowers. They were unnecessary extravagances. Ever watchful, he kept notes on everyone to be used against them. He was pompous and malicious. He carried himself with the same mantle and air of superiority he had so resented before the revolution. In the face of his humiliation, the Count never lost his cool. He always had a calm and polite demeanor, swallowing his pride and behaving appropriately, without fail. Admittedly, the Bishop did not seem to be the brightest bulb in the box. He was in his position because of party politics.
These same qualities he possessed, he had imparted to his ward, Sofia. She grew up to become a scholar, an accomplished piano player and a lovely young lady who exhibited the outward appearance of good breeding which the Count had so generously provided for her with his teachings and his affection. They were truly a family, and although she was not confined, she was loath to leave the hotel and him.
The Count loved his country, but as he contemplated Sophia’s future, he had his reservations about her remaining in the hotel with him. He wanted her to expand her horizons. How the two lived their lives in a world where they were watched and their movements were controlled was beautifully rendered by the author. The Russia they lived in for several decades was alive, and although there were many faults, they took solace in the beautiful music of the famous Russian composers like Rachmaninoff, the piano playing of Horowitz, and the magnificent tomes of the brilliant authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. From the twenties to the mid fifties, Russian life was illuminated.
This book is a must read. I hope there will be a sequel because I wanted more when it ended. It is the kind of book that becomes your friend and companion; It is a book to savor, a book in which one will meet, enjoy and become endeared to the characters. Those unlikable will be disdained.
I was inclined to cheer the Count on as he made his life in the cramped quarters of his attic and to boo the Bishop whenever he approached. I was charmed by Sophia as she grew up under his tutelage and the guidance and friendship of the hotel’s employees; they were all interesting characters and all devoted friends of each other. By the end, the reader will feel so engaged that they might believe that they, too, are also intimate friends of the characters in this book. How will the story end for the Count and Sofia? What lies ahead for them?
This author’s use of the English language surpasses what is used in most novels today. His vocabulary, his sentence structure, his descriptions and his juxtaposition of words to create images make them so vivid and so beautifully drawn that the reader will be in the very time and place, living in the Metropol Hotel with the Count and his friends, experiencing what he experiences and feeling all of the same emotions. In the end, the Count seemed to represent all that was right in the world as his aristocratic nature merged with the nature of the ordinary man, as well. His refinement served him in good stead. He was learned, well mannered and without guile. He was no longer arrogant but rather he understood the real world, had gotten used to less pampering and came to realize he was the same kind of person as all of his friends who were not aristocrats. They were equals and served each other mutually, regardless of their position or stature. Perhaps the greatest message is that good people are good people regardless of title, position or economic standing, and life can be adjusted to, even in the worst of circumstances, if one has the will and self control.
I would give this book ten stars if I could. The narrator was outstanding, portraying each character so impressively that the identity of each character was perfectly obvious whenever they appeared on the scene. Even though Smith played the role of male and female, adult and child, aristocrat and commoner, he was absolutely perfect in his presentation, so that even without changing his male voice in an attempt to make it female or childish, he imparted an image, to the reader, of the character in the flesh with his tone and timbre. Without resorting to unnecessary sexual allusions or language that is foul, this author created a masterpiece filled with surprises and an unexpected ending.
*** The Metropol hotel is a magnificent, historic structure. Many of the places mentioned in the book still exist today within its walls. There is a Chaliapin Bar. There is a Boyarsky Hall. There is even a chef called Andrey.