Friday, October 13, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I was super excited when the Gables Book Club chose this book for our October read. I was disappointed that we missed hearing Amor Towles speak when he was in Pittsburgh. The book has been on the best seller list for weeks on end and has intrigued me. The downside was that we all had a difficult time getting the book from the libraries around us and so ended up buying the Kindle version. 

There are some books that when you read the words on the page, they conjure up the most vivid picture in your mind. Such was A Gentleman in Moscow. I found myself rereading and bookmarking so many passages in this book that I know I want to revisit. Towles style is remarkable. The novel begins shortly after the Russian with the sentencing of Alexander Rostov to spending his life confined to the Metropol Hotel in Moscow for supposedly speaking out against the state in a poem. The Metropol was and is a place of aristocratic grandeur with restaurants among the best in Russia. It was definitely not the Gulag despite The Count's quarters being on the top floor in almost an attic room. Having moved the most meaningful pieces in his life, including his grandfather's desk and his father's twice tolling clock, Alexander settles in with his books and wine. 

During his time there that spans decades into the 1960s, the reader is introduced to a cadre of characters that impact The Count's life. There is Mishka, an old and dear friend, also unsympathetic to the historical events of the time, writer and muse. Anna, a willowy woman and actress, becomes his lover and friend, the triumvirate of the kitchen staff, Marina, the hotel seamstress who becomes a surrogate mother of sorts, and Nina and Sofia, the two most important women in his life. The antagonist, whom the reader detests, is Leplevsky, aka The Bishop, because of his character being like the chess piece. He 
"never moved along the rank or file. With him it was always on the bias: slipping diagonally from corner to corner” (p.218)
The Bishop sets out to bring Alexander to the denouement he thinks he deserves. There are numerous other characters who touch Alexander's life and they are all so well developed in the telling of the story that the reader can picture them and almost feel that s/he knows them well.  Even the one-eyed cat!
Throughout the novel, told by an omniscient narrator, one feasts one the words as well as the food and wine, as The Count, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt.... goes about his daily routines. At the onset, he is befriended by Nina who approaches him after she notices that he is missing his mustache. She shows him places in the hotel that had not been seen before as they listen in to meetings and conversations. She gives him that spirit that at times he is lacking. She reappears as a member of an activist group that sets out to collectivize the farms. Her last appearance is when she drops her young daughter, Sofia, off to be cared for by The Count. Sofia, whom the count eventually adopts, gives him that will to live again. She is a serious girl who grows up before the reader's eye to become an accomplished pianist, a situation that creates the climax of the book. 

There are some twists, turns, and happenings that take one by surprise. The cause for Alexander to suddenly leave the hotel and then return incognito is a critical moment. It paves the way for events to come. Abram, the handyman and beekeeper, provides wisdom beyond the expected and figures heavily in a watershed moment when The Count believes that the world he has loved with its grace, etiquette, and manners. This loss of culture is difficult for the Count to adjust.

As a secondary pleasure, it was a bit nostalgic to read the descriptions of St. Petersburg and Moscow. It brought back memories of the cemeteries, gardens, and the Kremlin, which were all so beautiful.

A Gentleman in Moscow is bound to stay with the reader for months and years to come. The book club agreed that it is a book worth of rereading in it's entirety because of the richness of the language. To be sure, it is a novel that any serious lover of literature needs to experience, immerse oneself in, and absorb. And then, to go back again and do it all over.