A Gentleman in Moscow
Video Length 1:42
Who Should Read It
Anyone who might want a refreshing take on living a full life, from someone who lived most of it inside of a hotel.
Why Should We Read It
This is a work of pure fiction, but sometimes we need art to teach us how to navigate the real world.
What Will We Learn
We will learn that life is not about titles and possessions, but about relationships and character.
Shortly before the Winter Holidays 2017, a colleague of mine asked me for some reading recommendations. Ever the opportunist, I of course promoted the book reviews found on The Busy Reader. Long-time readers of our website will know that my reading selection here is overwhelmingly non-fiction. My colleague wrinkled her nose and commented that nonfiction was usually the last thing she wanted to read. She then recommended to me Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, a work of historical fiction that has been making its rounds through reading clubs nationwide since its publication in September 2016. Why not, I thought. I was heading to Taiwan for two weeks, and had yet to choose a literary travel companion. There would be personal irony to read about a fictional aristocrat under house arrest while a commoner like myself explores an island over six thousand miles from his home.
"With very few exception, the entirety of the novel takes place within the four walls of the Hotel Metropol..."
The Gentleman in question is the fictitious Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat with the singular misfortune of being in Russia in 1922. Modern historians will recall that by 1922, the Bolshevik Communists' Red Terror had tortured and killed at least 100,000 bourgeoisie and Tsarist sympathizers with an imagination rivaling the Spanish Inquisition. In 1922, when A Gentleman in Moscow begins, we read that Alexander had been sentenced to permanent house arrest at the Hotel Metropol for the crime of being a genteel poet. The punishment should the Count take one step outside of the hotel: death by firing squad. With very few exception, the entirety of the novel takes place within the four walls of the Hotel Metropol, a real-life hotel and the only hotel in Moscow built before 1917 that still stands today. Fate, it appears, would have the Count condemned to witness Life pass him by.
"What happens when a person is confined within one building for thirty-two years? The answer: Life itself."
What happens when a person is confined within one building for thirty-two years? The answer: Life itself. The Count, immediately humbled from Distinguished Hotel Guest to Former Person, learns that if he “does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.” So he forges friendships. He flirts with love. He reinvents himself. He is thrust into fatherhood and discovers that “a parent's responsibility could not be more simple: to bring a child safely into adulthood so that she could have a chance to experience a life of purpose and, God willing, contentment.” And through it all, Alexander Rostov, rigorously trained from birth to be charming, remained charming until the end. After all, "a gentleman's presence was best announced by his bearing, his remarks, and his manners. Not by the cut of his coat."
"What I found was a novel that was exceedingly quotable and immensely philosophical."
A Gentleman in Moscow was something of an accident for me. It was barely on my reading radar, and I had no expectations. What I found was a novel that was exceedingly quotable and immensely philosophical. It was a pleasure to read, and I was sorry for the story to end, as all stories must do. Life, however, continues to march onward. And if we are to learn one thing from the impossible life of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is that "if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity... [and] a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along."