I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow for the simplest of reasons: it’s about a man condemned to house arrest. Now that I’ve been locked down at home for the past five months, obviously, that resonated. “Ah, yes,” I thought to myself, pausing between raptures at my reunion with my beloved bookstore. “Here is a man who must feel as I do, but has managed to live a life worth 400 pages of fiction. Maybe here I’ll find the wisdom that will carry me through my own predicament.” In short, it was a project of feeling a little less lonely.
And less lonely I did feel. Reading this book feels like having a long conversation with an old friend – it carries the same slow, timeless signature of wandering amid lifetimes from the comfort of one’s own room.
A setting we all recognise
The comfort of one’s own room is where the book is set, in a gentle tug-of-war between resignation to, and reconciliation with, the circumstances of a house – or hotel – arrest. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a relic of aristocracy sentenced to confinement in the glamorous Metropol Hotel for writing a poem in post-revolution Russia. The book is about the lifetime he spends within while Russia rages and changes without.
We first meet Alexander Ilych at a Bolshevik tribunal, where he is sentenced to a lifetime of confinement at the Metropol Hotel, right across the street from the Kremlin. The young Count Rostov, used to freedom, travel, and gaiety, takes it in his stride. He lives by his godfather’s words of wisdom: “If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” And in that quest, we witness three decades of love, friendship, and the richness of life.
The delightful plot of the book is best narrated by Towles himself, who must be credited for dreaming up a lively world that allows us to travel despite its restricted setting. While the meat of the story classifies it as historical fiction, it has the slow burn of a thriller cut through with a subtle zest of comedy.
Metaphors of food in a review of this book are necessary to carry forward its voice, because A Gentleman in Moscow is as much about food as it is about many other things. Chapter after chapter brings to life Count Rostov’s culinary delight. The detailed focus on food and drink – the small pleasures of life – make the story more real. Anyone locked down knows that it’s the small things that add vibrance to life when it’s limited to four walls.
Towles excels at highlighting the little things with close attention to detail, adding depth to the story. And he serves up the finest appetisers of sentences, deliciously crafted, for the pleasure of any connoisseur of words. Sample this:
“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence – one that was on intimate terms with a comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.”
Paired with introspective wisdom at intervals, like sips of aged wine:
“After all, isn’t that why the pages of books are numbered? To facilitate the finding of one’s place after a reasonable interruption?”
Locked in or lucky?
Perhaps fittingly for a book located in house arrest, A Gentleman in Moscow is a lighthearted celebration of friendship across ages, and what it truly means to love. That’s a task I think books on friendship are best placed to undertake. Being as it is between equals, friendship is, after all, the highest form of relationship. And that is where we truly learn to love.
But most significantly for me, the book is a meditation on physical spaces and one’s relationship with them. Readers in lockdown will find in Count Rostov a kindred soul navigating the challenge of what space comes to mean when mobility is restricted, especially in times of upheaval – whether through disease or revolution.
The backdrop of Communist Russia is like white noise: subtle, but atmospheric. Despite his chosen setting, Towles doesn’t seriously engage with the politics of the time, although he does write through an Americanised lens. But in inverting the focus from the larger Russian narrative to Rostov’s life, he recreates the eerie feeling of reality becoming faint and dreamlike as one only watches it pass by without any chance at participating in it. Which is not always a bad thing.
Alexander Ilyich, despite being imprisoned, thinks he is the luckiest man in Russia. By the end of the book, the reader will likely agree. Count Rostov’s confinement is also his haven. Within it, he is free to be a true gentleman in a Moscow meant for comrades only.
In Rostov, we can find a mirror for our own situation. For readers in 2020, home is both prison and sanctuary in a very literal sense. Even though normal life is upended and we long desperately for the world outside, it is only in our confinement that we have any degree of safety.
But on deeper examination, maybe we will find that our confinement is also, in a far less literal sense, a space of the deepest freedom to be who we truly are: a sanctuary from the unfreedom of society, should we choose to make it so. To quote the Count himself: “It is of interest of times to change, Mr Helecki. And it is the business of gentlemen to change with them.”
A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel, Amor Towles, Viking.