So it came to be that Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow was sitting on my bedside table, and of course I read it.
What a surprise this book is; what an unexpected experience it is to read A Gentleman in Moscow in 2018!
In all the shrill discord of recent times, it's as though you came home, collapsed onto the couch, picked up the (electronic, nowadays) newspaper, and, instead of reading one vehement and bitter article after another about wars, ecological calamities, and disputes over taxes, religion, and culture, you instead found yourself peacefully at home with something that might have been written by Jane Austen or Henry James.
But, more striking still, as you work your way through A Gentleman in Moscow, what you realize is that this elegant story, full of grace, dignity, and charm, is told against a backdrop as tumultuous, dramatic, and violent as any we are currently experiencing: the Russian Revolution and the creation of the USSR that started in 1917 and continued through the early 1920's.
I'm sure you know the broad strokes of this overall story, whether you learned it in high school, or made your way through Ten Days that Shook the World, or Doctor Zhivago, or Reds.
But you never saw those events from this perspective, I can assure you!
A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat ("recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt ... born in St. Petersburg, 24 October 1889") from Nizhny Novgorod, who finds himself tried and found guilty by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, and is thereby declared a Former Person:
In Russian language and culture, "former people" (Russian: Бывшие люди) are people who lost their social status, an expression somewhat similar to the English one, "has-beens". The expression went into a wide circulation in the Russian Empire after the 1897 short story of Maxim Gorky, Бывшие люди, translated in English as Creatures That Once Were Men, about people fallen from prosperity into an abyss of misery. After the October Revolution the expression referred to people who lost their social status after the revolution: aristocracy, imperial military, bureaucracy, clergy, etc.
In the particular case of Count Rostov, he finds himself sentenced to a sort of eternal confinement to his quarters in the Metropol Hotel.
That may not sound like a promising tableau on which to write a 500 page epic of a novel, but Towles rises to the task, and then above it. A Gentleman in Moscow is full of adventure, romance, heartbreak, mystery, drama, and everything you could possibly want, all of it told in the most elegant and refined manner possible.
As we go, we find ourselves, ever so gently, understanding how it is that Things Change:
Not long ago, the Count recalled, there had been three seamstresses at work in this room, each before an American-made sewing machine. Like the three Fates, together they had spun and measured and cut -- taking in gowns, raising hems, and letting out pants with all of the fateful implications of their predecessors. In the aftermath of the Revolution, all three had been discharged; the silenced sewing machines had, presumably, become the property of the People; and the room? It had been idled like Fatima's flower shop. For those had not been years for the taking in of gowns or the raising of hems any more than they had been for the throwing of bouquets or the sporting of boutonnieres.
Then in 1921, confronted with a backlog of fraying sheets, tattered curtains, and torn napkins -- which no one had any intention of replacing -- the hotel had promoted Marina, and once again a trustworthy seam was being sewn within the walls of the hotel.
"Ah, Marina," said the Count when she opened the door with needle and thread in hand. "How good to find you stitching away in the stitching room."
Marina looked at the Count with a touch of suspicion.
"What else would I be doing?"
"Quite so," said the Count.
Along the way, we have plenty of the Essays of Montaigne, plenty of Casablanca, plenty of fine wine, plenty of Mayakovsky, and plenty of Dzerzhinsky Street.
It's all marvelous, beautiful, heart-felt, and grand: I guarantee you this is far and away the most fun you will ever have reading about a man in a hotel.