We live in a time when civility and charm seem difficult to find and tempers are on a short fuse. Even a trip to the grocery store can seem like negotiating a mine field of human hostility. People disconnect from fellow shoppers and single-mindedly rush to get items crossed off their errand list. All they long for is to get home to their personal sanctuary. In times like these, Amor Towles is just the antidote required to inspire introspection and self-evaluation. Perhaps he will even help us change the way we relate to the world. A Gentleman in Moscow, although just a fiction story, makes a point that could transform us all.
Our gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, Member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, is 33 years old when we first meet him in 1922. He is a man caught between two ages in Russian history so disparate as to induce whiplash. He is an aristocrat who returns, to his peril, to Russia from Paris in 1918, which if you know your history, is just after the Russian Revolution when Russian society gets turned over like a compost pile. What was on the bottom is now on the top and what was on the top is now, for the most part, either dead or in Siberia.
But Count Rostov is such a benign style of aristocrat that he manages to wend his way through the anger and revolutionary righteousness of the new Communist state, not completely unscathed, but as a permanent resident of a luxurious Russian hotel right near the center of Moscow. Rostov has never held a job, has never been a worker, but he is trained by his former lifestyle to have skills that are quite useful to have. He is a great judge of human interaction and he knows how to arrange people at a state dinner or in a well-run restaurant so that any strife is defused and affairs run smoothly. Besides this talent he is charming and amenable and flexible in the face of change. His good nature is adaptable but he is not a chameleon; he is always himself.
Count Rostov’s punishment for coming back to Russia at exactly the wrong time is that he is imprisoned in the lovely Metropole Hotel where he has been living for four years. When asked by the tribunal why he came back he says he missed the climate and they all shake their heads in understanding. He has to give up a large suite of rooms with excellent views that he has been occupying and move into servant’s quarters in the attic. If you think that once sentence has been passed this tale will turn gloomy and scary then you have not yet met our Alexander. He’s in a hotel. Things happen. You may find that you have to “suspend your disbelief” a bit but it will be well worth it.
Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility writes like times that are past and gone, like one who is on earth to remind us of slower times when people were kinder and more (heaven forbid) socially correct. It was a balm to my spirit to read A Gentleman in Moscow at this particularly pugilistic moment in the history of our nation.