A Sure Route to Madness
I’m Pat Tyrer from Canyon, Texas for the High-Plains-Public-Radio-Readers Book Club. I’m excited to talk about A Gentleman in Moscow, one of my very favorite books. This character-driven novel revolves around Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, an aristocrat, who has been sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in the hotel Metropol just across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov has been condemned for writing a poem considered seditious by the Bolsheviks and for being a member of the nobility in this time of revolution.
The novel begins as the Count is relocated from his luxurious rooms on the third floor to a small dusty sixth-floor room via a utility stair, most of his elegant possessions having been confiscated. Although initially feeling purposeless, he continues to maintain his schedule of visits to the hotel barber, lunch in the Piazza, dinner in the Boyarsky, and evening drinks at the Shalyapin bar, never once leaving the Metropol. Throughout the continued changes in his circumstances, and the changes to the elegant Hotel Metropol by the newly empowered communists, the count maintains his elegant demeanor and his sense of humor. As he says, “imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.”
The novel is filled with wonderfully clever and endearing characters such as nine-year-old Nina, his first friend who introduces him to the secret rooms and passages of the Metropol and with whom he forges a life-long connection, his best friend and poet Mishka, the actress Anna Urbanova who becomes his lover, Andray, the maître d’ of the Boyarsky, Emile the head chef, Marina, the hotel seamstress, and Sofia to whom he becomes parent, advisor, and protector.
The story is set against the rise of the Communist Bolshevik Party following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although not particularly political, there is the suggestion that the downfall of the aristocracy led to the exposure of a vast population of illiterate people living in near serfdom, just as other actions point to the corruption of the new rulers equal to that of the nobility.
The central themes of the novel, however, are change, adaptation, friendship, and family. Initially isolated by his house arrest, Rostov quickly begins to adjust to his new situation making the best of what he has left. Over the course of his initial confinement, the Count learns to adapt by establishing a routine. He makes adjustment to his small room when he finds an adjacent room being used for storage—he quickly removes the stored equipment and expands his space creating a sitting room where he reads novels left by hotel guests that he and Nina discovered in a basement storage room. The novel is sprinkled with references to famous Russians: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekov, and Tchaikovsky in a delightfully informative defense of Russian culture.
Having lost contact with friends on the outside, he begins making friends within the hotel. His initial flirtatious relationship with the actress, Anna Urbanova evolves into a romantic liaison of mutual respect and comfort. His relationship with the young Nina Kulikova as she grows into womanhood and with her child, Sofia, presents him with both the joys and the challenges of friendship and fatherhood.
The novel is filled with humorous characters and situations. Not only is Count Rostov a charming aristocrat, his personality and attitude harken to an earlier time of elegance, refined manners, and respect for others. A Gentleman in Moscow is a delightful romp through a period of history with which I was not familiar. It is a novel filled with adventures and intrigue and I was sorry to see it end. I encourage you to check out A Gentleman from Moscow, a wonderfully clever and entertaining novel from Amor Towles.
Again, I’m Pat Tyrer from Canyon, Texas for the High-Plains-Public-Radio-Readers Book Club.