Many years ago I learned from John Irving that if you want to convert readers into avid fans who will slog through hundreds of pages with you, arrange to have something horrible happen to the principal protagonist early on — something that’s no fault of his own. Despite character flaws, that inciting incident gives us, the reader, a stake in the story. It makes us care because our hero is obviously innocent. But why? I think it’s because we detect grace, or at least the potential for grace, even if it comes only thanks to a writer’s cruelest plot-turn.
John Irving had a penchant for having characters lose body parts through no fault of their own. Charles Dickens, long before him, preferred treating, well-meaning, smart children cruelly. And then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s recent reworking of David Copperfield, entitled, Demon Copperhead, demonstrating that today’s opioid-addicted times are no less cruel than those of the Victorian era. Her novel also proves that our modern-day zeal for social justice is no less intense.
In A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles, on the first page of his novel has a Bolshevik tribunal in Moscow on June 21, 1922 sentence one Count Alexander Rostov, a refined, educated, and truly gentle man, who has never worked a day in his life, to house arrest in the same elegant, upper-crust hotel in which he’s been a resident-guest for many years.
The hotel in the novel is called The Metropol. It exists in real life. Just as in the novel, it’s located a short walk from Red Square and The Kremlin.
Rostov’s crime? Being an “unrepentant aristocrat.” Well, as we meet the Count in the novel’s opening pages, he’s being escorted across the Red Square back to his hotel by two Russian soldiers. Only he’s wholly unrepentant. He refuses to play the role of a just-sentenced prisoner who is now beginning to serve out his sentence.
“Drawing his shoulders back without breaking stride, the Count inhaled the [glorious, cool] air like one fresh from a swim.”
We learn Rostov is descended from ten generations of Russian aristocrats, all of whom stood over six feet tall. As he walks along “his waxed mustaches spread like the wings of a gull.”
“‘Hello, my good man,’ the Count called to Fyodor, the fruit merchant at the edge of the square. ‘I see the blackberries have come in early this year.'”
And when the Count and the two Russian soldiers arrive back at the hotel, the count has the temerity to dismiss them saying, “Thank you, gentlemen for delivering me safely. I shall no longer be in need of your assistance.”
It goes without saying, the two soldiers refuse to be dismissed.
This, in microcosm, is the delight of reading A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that reverberates with chords of joy and freedom, almost as if the Count, through no fault of his own, consigned to living out his prison sentence in the most elegant of settings, is reborn, a person freed of sin, who is now free to serve others in every meaning of the word.
As with every Towles’ novel, the narrative insists on being vibrant, energetic, and intensely observant, readable and celebratory.
If you ever need living proof that a great novelist can take on a subject most novelists would never touch because they’d find it pitifully boring . . . or that a great novelist can breathe life into a story no others would touch so that it opens up into a fascinating love story of a gentleman and a Russian movie star; along with the story of a father and his young daughter; and also into the story of a writer exiled to Siberia who loses his soul but who connects with the true meaning of life through bread; and also — never to be forgotten— the story of a man who’s never worked a day in his life but who displays such intelligence, competence, verve and wit; he inspires so much love and respect on the part of his associates that he’s appointed head waiter of The Metropol’s finest restaurant, so that, in the end, Count Rostov truly becomes a person of service to others above all else, so that, in the end, he works every day of his life.
I think it’s high time you met A Gentleman in Moscow, don’t you?
— Chuck Lustig (Colombia 1967-68)
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