Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow for being an unrepentant aristocrat. He's moved from the large luxurious suite where he's been living to a small attic space. While Russia experiences the most tumultuous changes it has known, his world is confined to the inside of this one building. Still, his life - and this novel - are full of vibrant characters and a rich, deep inner life.

A Gentleman in Moscow was my most anticipated novel this fall, and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. It wasn't a quick read; in fact, it took me an entire week to read, but not because it was difficult in any way. On the contrary, it was delicious, and I didn't pick it up if I was tired or distracted because I didn't want to miss one morsel of beautiful language or one profound insight.

Towles uses exquisitely crafted language that befits the character of Rostov and his story. He is an educated man who appreciates the finer things in life, but who doesn't lose sight of what is important. His high standards extend to character and personality. Though he is a formal gentleman, Rostov is also quite fanciful. When his new young friend Nina approaches him to ask what happened to the mustaches which decorated his face just the day before, he replied "Like swallows, they traveled elsewhere for the summer." He is an educated, philosophical man who is open to new ideas and always learning, especially during his confinement when his inner life must make up for what he lacks from the outside world. He had very good friends inside the hotel, and a young girl he meets early in his confinement changes his life forever. Despite being imprisoned, his experiences opened a world to him that he likely never would have experienced had he been free.

Rostov never expressed a real desire to leave the hotel, or chagrin at his imprisonment. I got the impression that he didn't actually want to be a part of this new Russia, preferring instead to stay inside the grand hotel from another time. (Which is somewhat understandable because I've stayed at the Metropol, and I could totally live there.) Which is not to say that the outside world didn't affect him or the hotel. There were shortages of ingredients for food at the restaurants, rooms were taken over for government work, and on one memorable occasion all the labels were removed from the wines in the vast cellar to make them all indistinguishable in a misguided attempt at communizing even the beverages.

But back to the language. It's difficult to pick out passages to share because the greatest attention was given to crafting every sentence in the book, and many of the best bits need to be in their contexts to really shine. But it would be a shame not to give you a taste, so here's a paragraph describing Rostov's insomnia and late-night worries:

"Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count's would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore."

Isn't that beautiful? His insights also extend to the larger world, as illustrated in this observation about Soviet Russia's iconic lines:

"To a foreigner, it must have seemed that Russia had become the land of ten thousand lines. For there were lines at the tram stops, lines before the grocer, lines at the agencies of labor, education, and housing. But in point of fact, there were not ten thousand lines, or even ten. There was one all-encompassing line, which wound around the country and back through time. This had been Lenin's greatest innovation: a line that, like the Proletariat itself, was universal and infinite."

It's been a long time since I took such pleasure in the language of a book, and this was the perfect marriage of language and story. A Gentleman in Moscow is surely my favorite book of 2016. I only wish I had read it as part of a book group so I can discuss it with other people. There is so much to talk about, and I'm already enjoying re-reading my favorite passages. I loved everything about this book, all of it, every word.


Lindsay said...

Oooh, your review made me want to read this even more. You had me at "delicious"! ;) Good writing is so important to me and those passages you shared are just gorgeous! I hadn't heard of Towles until the hype began prior to this book release and I thought I might try "Rules of Civility" first, but I think I'm going to skip right ahead to this one and make a point to read it this fall. It's also fitting since I decided I wanted to read more books set in Russia after watching "War & Peace."

3goodrats said...

I hope you love it!