READING GIVES US
SOMEPLACE TO GO
WHEN WE HAVE TO STAY
WHERE WE ARE
DIANE DE BEER
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Hutchinson):
It’s always one of the rewards of reading when a book turns out to be so much more than its cover (or even the first few chapters) suggest.
I had been prodded by some remarks from two very different readers to have a closer look at this one, and I’m delighted I did.
More than a third into the book, I was thoroughly enjoying the sweet if sad tale but finding it slightly lightweight. Much of one’s affinity for the novel at the beginning is the main character (and narrator) who is just such a likable fella.
Count Alexander Rostov has led an extraordinary privileged life but it is now 1922, a new regime has taken over in his country and his circumstances are greatly changed. In fact, when he is marched out of the Kremlin across Red Square, this will be the last time he sees the outside world for quite some time.
Instead of his usual luxurious suite, he is taken to an attic room with a window which hardly allows him any view at all. Viewed as an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest.
That’s where we get to meet this affable man who seems to accept his lot quite graciously, simply gets on with it as we are taken into his inner circle as he shares his life henceforth.
But this is not any life and not the one he was accustomed to in his past life as an aristocrat. He is living in one of Moscow’s most prestigious and historic hotels and while the clientele has changed as has the government, this is still the place to be seen. Yet as someone who took his daily rituals intensely seriously, a walk in the park, a morning coffee and some such, he is initially put out by this sudden inconvenience.
What starts out as seemingly a minor obstruction, at least for the ingenuous Count Rostov, turns into quite a madcap adventure as different people come into his life to show him new ways of navigating this peculiar and unexpected life-changing world. It’s fun and reads almost like a contemporary fairy tale but what adds substance and weight is the changing Russia that emerges with something new happening on an almost daily basis.
It makes sense then that the hotel becomes a leitmotif for what is transforming in the rest of the country.. While the Count cannot stick his nose outside, he is kept in touch with the reality by those entering the doors of this much revered establishment. It plays out in full to the extent that the identity of the next powerful leader emerges at a dinner that takes place in a sacred dining room and the way the seating arrangements unfold.
It is in the telling of the tale, the language (”of course, there’s now more canvas than cashmere in the room, more gray than gold. But is the patch on the elbow really that much different from the epaulet on the shoulder?”), the way the characters spill out and over one another, the ages of the different participants and the changing of the guard that doesn’t have to mean the end of anyone’s expectations of inhabiting some kind of world, that keeps one intrigued.
It also reminds us – again – that the more things change, the more they remain the same.