Books, Fiction

A Gentleman in Moscow

March 31, 2017

There are few stories you have the pleasure to experience that you could inhabit indefinitely, and A Gentleman in Moscow was one of these all-encompassing literary worlds for me. The language, the structure of the book, where do I begin? A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in 1920’s Russia for writing a subversive poem, or subversive as deemed by his prosecutors. He is confined to life in the Metropol, a luxury hotel in the center of Moscow, though he must give up his previously occupied ritzy suite for more cramped quarters on the hotel’s upper floor. Still, this fate seems better than death or banishment, and aside from the limitations of the hotel itself, life for the Count carries on in some semblance of normalcy. Within the Metropol he is free to do as he pleases. He dines at the hotel’s restaurants, makes use of any of its services (barbershop, seamstress), and is also free to interact with other hotel guests without limitations. While we don’t leave the hotel either, we get snippets of the larger Russian climate as it comes through the Metropol via an expanding cast of characters.

Daily ritual is an important theme of the book, and is certainly central to the Count’s mastery of his own circumstance within the Metropol. The times and places he eats, his before and after dinner drinks, the sameness of his breakfast each morning. Instead of becoming commonplace, they are his simple pleasures, his own way of creating small, pleasurable milestones. These rituals don’t become boring to the plot either. In the same way that they keep the Count’s days busy and filled, they are the vehicles that put him in certain places at certain times to encounter the book’s other central figures. Also by becoming a regular fixture in these places the Count is allowed the privilege of being an observer.

The Count’s life and fate is forever altered by the entrance of Nina, who is about 6 years old when we meet her (if memory serves). She further expands the Metropol to the Count with the curiosity that is only permissible in childhood, though he is a willing participant in her expeditions. Later, of course, Nina provides the most significant figure in the Count’s life, Sofia, Nina’s daughter, whom she has no choice but to entrust to the Count’s care out of her own political and professional necessity. I appreciated the book’s organization and the way time elapsed between each section in a way that required me to do my own inference, and also kept my own curiosity piqued as to what was in store for the Count. Something that I didn’t quite pick up on while I was reading, though had jotted down as something to check back on upon completion, was the specific amounts of time elapsing between each section. In an interview about writing A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles offers the following:

As you may have noted, the book has a somewhat unusual structure. From the day of the Count’s house arrest, the chapters advance by a doubling principal: one day after arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principal is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years until the Count’s escape, four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door.

While odd, this accordion structure seems to suit the story well, as we get a very granular description of the early days of confinement; then we leap across time through eras defined by career, parenthood, and changes in the political landscape; and finally, we get a reversion to urgent granularity as we approach the denouement. As an aside, I think this is very true to life, in that we remember so many events of a single year in our early adulthood, but then suddenly remember an entire decade as a phase of our career or of our lives as parents.

When I finished the book, I had a sense of it coming somewhat abruptly to its end, but this explanation makes sense and is true of the way we experience life. The most notable shift in time comes with Sofia’s entrance, and the Count comments on this himself, pondering how such a small being could so drastically alter the perceived length of his day. Where he was settled into a routine, Sofia, at age 5, forces him to slow down even more, to consider his day with her in even smaller segments. Of course in getting lost in this process with her, time flies by for them both, and before we know it she is an adult and the Count is forced to reckon with her life outside the Metropol.

The Count could be one of my favorite narrators. I enjoyed getting lost in the book’s language, and found myself jotting down words like axiomatic, a frequently used descriptor of the Count, to sneak into my own daily lexicon. I would like to read this book again with my newly gained understanding of its temporal structure, and will definitely be adding Amor Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility, to my reading list.

My emphatic rating:

I’m so glad I bought a copy of this book, because it’s definitely a keeper, and a book I will look back very fondly on for quite some time.

*Photo credit: 1931 Leningrad Intourist Moscow Hotel Metropol poster courtesy of Keijo Knutos

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