Sunday 17 December 2017

Comrades in charms

Fiction: A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles, Hutchinson, €19.99

Detail from 'The Bolshevik' by Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev, currently on display at the Royal Academy, London, as part of the 'Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932' show, on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Detail from 'The Bolshevik' by Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev, currently on display at the Royal Academy, London, as part of the 'Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932' show, on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
A Gentleman in Moscow
Author Amor Towles

Anne Cunningham

On midsummer's day in 1922, Russian aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov is taken by the Bolsheviks from his opulent suite in Moscow's Hotel Metropol and tried for... well, for being an aristocrat in the USSR.

Although found guilty simply by nature of his pedigree, he is spared the firing squad because of a poem he wrote in 1913, which the authorities decide is in keeping with the sentiments of the Revolution of 1917. He escapes death, but faces a life sentence of servitude in the unlikely setting of the very hotel from which he was arrested, where he is assigned a small, cell-like room in the attic. Should he ever leave the premises, he will be shot. Alexander stays put for more than 30 years.

A lesser man might rail at his fate, but Count Rostov is one of the most charming characters you're likely to encounter in a book, and not one for floundering in self-pity. He accepts his fate with immeasurable grace, citing a line from his much-loved volume of Montaigne Essays: "The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness."

And so he passes the days and years and decades within the confines of the hotel walls. One would be forgiven for thinking that setting virtually every scene in such a generously-proportioned tome within a hotel might incur a smidgen of boredom, therefore it is to the author's credit that this is certainly not the case. All human life is there in the Hotel Metropol, Moscow's glittering manifestation of a bygone era. The Count, himself a remnant of that era, is in his element.

Author Amor Towles
Author Amor Towles

Attending to the needs of those who, in Soviet circles are considered "more equal than others", Count Rostov encounters Bolshoi ballerinas and famous actresses, artists and poets and scholars, along with the pedantic bores and dangerous sycophants who tend to Stalin's every whim in the nearby Kremlin offices.

With artful evasiveness, Amor Towles leaves the darkness of the Stalin years and World War II just outside the hotel door, using sweeping understatements like: "Let us concede that the early Thirties in Russia were unkind." Yet the reader is always acutely aware of the shadow of Communist oppression, as ubiquitous as God.

Two of Rostov's closest friends disappear and he ends up rearing one friend's five-year-old daughter in the hotel. Hardly plausible, but then this is part of the book's charm. Virtually none of this gorgeous novel is plausible. But it's such an elegant, funny, beautifully-written book that it's impossible to care.

Towles's intention is not to write yet another Russian tragedy, nor is it to tread on Solzhenitsyn's ground. While there is hardly a page that doesn't allude to the Russian masters of literature and music, this novel is as much a celebration of that great culture as it is a biography of an irrepressible and indomitable spirit.

Towles is already flushed with the huge success of his Great Gatsby-esque debut novel Rules of Civility, set in 1920s New York. This, his second novel, will surely cement his reputation - an absolute must-read.

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