“A Gentleman in Moscow,” the second novel of Island seasonal resident Amor Towles, will surpass your expectations.
As readers, we tend to fret about second books. Many first-book successes are orphans. If you were a fan of Mr. Towles’ delightful, best-selling first novel, “Rules of Civility,” published in 2011, you’ll be captivated by this story of a Russian aristocrat enmeshed in postrevolution change in Russia during the 1920s.
Mr. Towles’ considerable talent was unknown when “Rules of Civility” first appeared, but his second release has been eagerly awaited. Island libraries report long waiting lists, and Bunch of Grapes was processing a reorder when we bought a copy of this New York Times bestseller.
Delivered in pitch-perfect prose and dialogue that reflect the times and resonate easily in the present, Mr. Towles, as he did with the American Roaring ’20s in “Rules of Civility,” offers us instant immersion in the gory ’20s of a Russian social and political system redefining itself. We view the tumult through the eyes of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a man who is sure he knows who he is, though the Fates will provide him with additional self-learning opportunities. Accompanying the count on his learning curve adds zest to this richly detailed account of a man and his times.
We meet the count (recipient of the Order of St. Andrew, Master of the Hunt, and member of the Jockey Club) through the minutes of proceedings by the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (ECPCIA), which has hauled the 33-year bachelor nobleman before it on June 21, 1922, to answer for his crime of being a nobleman.
The count is charming, even gracious, during his brief inquisition. The post-revolutionary apparatchiks, however, are extremely crotchety with regard to the leisure class, and prefer to shoot them or send them to Siberia. Fate intervenes with input from senior party members. Following a 12-minute huddle, the ECPCIA declares the count is now a Former Person, and he is sentenced to house arrest for his remaining days. He will be shot if he ever sets foot outside his residence.
Thus our tale begins. The count has already been in residence for four years at the Hotel Metropol, which then, and today, is a massive five-star beauty in the center of Moscow, featuring the Boyarsky, one of the world’s great restaurants.
So he’s escaped the firing squad, the gulag, and the Lubyanka (the KGB funhouse), but he’s been reassigned from his luxury Metropol suite to an attic garret on the tippy-top of the hotel, where we accompany him for the next 32 years as he successfully reinvents a happy life: learning to love, even getting a job as head waiter at the Boyarsky.
Not that he needs the money. While Alexander is a well-educated, world-traveled man with encyclopedic knowledge of and deep affection for the arts, wine, cuisine, literature, and the opinions of several thousand years of deep thinkers, he is also wise in the ways of the world. While the family estate and most of his stuff are gone, the count has thoughtfully stored rare czarist-era gold double eagles in the hollowed-out legs of his rare, czarist-era desk. They come in handy time and again over the years, including playing a key role in the defection of Sofia, his 17-year-old “daughter.”
The Count’s raising of Sofia is an example of plotting that Mr. Towles employs throughout the book, in matters large and small, to test the mettle of our man. We like the guy by the time 5-year-old Sofia is literally thrust into his well-informed 50-year-old arms in the lobby of the Metropol, but we worry some, because while Socrates was terrific, no one can prepare us for parenthood.
This is not a terse tale of interior death and resurrection. It is a story of a new life unfolding, an often droll tale, sometimes downright funny, in which this massive prison becomes a new world brought to the count through the eyes of two children, a lover, and one former and two new friends.
“A Gentleman in Moscow” has spycraft, historical characters, hijinks, and danger aplenty accompanying the chronic presence of oppositional philosophy between an actual gentleman and boorish bureaucrats.
Mr. Towles offers an additional benefit to those of us who snoozed through philosophy and art appreciation classes. He has deftly interwoven ideas, music, and classic images that serve us well in times of stress and indolence. They are prepared and delivered in morsels like Boyarsky’s menu choices, portions we can digest and enjoy.
Now tempus does fugit, but the count’s mien and the tempo of Mr. Towles’ delivery slows us down, makes us savor, and allows us to see crafted turns of phrase, delicate punning, and conceits that power reading rolls over. For example, I noticed that his chapter titles, normally mundane previews of the pages to come, are each composed only of words that begin with the letter A.
Taking the time to do that is one thing, but also having the facility of language to do it? Impressive.
All in all, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is an elegant literary work that informs, educates, and entertains — and one that happily appears in a decidedly inelegant period in our own society.