Saturday, December 16, 2023

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is called before the Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs in Moscow. He's identified as the author of Where Is It Now?, a poem published in 1913 and considered by some to be a call to action after the failed revolt of 1905. But despite these credentials, the count is also an aristocrat, was out of the country during the revolutions of 1917 and is deemed to have "succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class" (p. 5). He is placed under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol and remains there for years...

But he does more than just survive; he flourishes.

This is an extraordinary, bewitching novel - a man out of his time in a fast-changing new order, his old-world values at odds with the officiousness of modernity. Rostov is a charming, suave protagonist, able to assist and advise a broad range of those he encounters in the hotel, building up friendships and even a family. It's a story of one man against the odds like so much thrilling spy fiction - and there's a feeling of le Carre throughout, which I mean as high compliment. (Rostov likens himself more to Sam Spade in the film version of The Maltese Falcon). 

Yet what really makes this work is that it's often so playful and fun. The reader is just another in the line to fall for Rostov's charm. And then, in the last section, there's a direct threat to Rostov and someone he holds very dear, and it all gets much more suspenseful, to the very last page.

A Gentleman in Moscow was the last novel my late father finished reading - while in hospital for almost the last time - and the last book he recommended to me. Reading it has been a little like a conversation with him, not least because I can see why he'd have liked it so much. There's something of my dad in Rostov, and his wit and worldview. For all this novel enthralled me, it's taken a while to finish, in part because I've been busy on other things. But now, on completing it, I realise I lingered - a book, and connection, I didn't want to put down.

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