Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

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If Marco Roth is right and we’re currently living in the age of the ‘neuronovel’, then Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, published last year in the UK, might be considered the antithesis of that trend. With his aristocratic protagonist (reduced to waitering in the hotel where he used to reside as a gentleman of leisure), and clear nod to Tolstoy as supreme literary hero, there’s no doubt Towles bucks the trend of novelists confronting head on the bewildering aspects of post-truth, tech-saturated 21st century existence.

So yes, on one hand this book is like a classic black and white film on the telly at Christmas, and of the review extracts printed in the first three pages it’s not surprising that the word ‘escapist’ features in two. Those inclined to think politically may also note that a more than usual number of the extracts seem to come from organs of the right wing press, with the longest and most ecstatic reserved for that reliably reactionary rag The Daily Express. Far be it from me to imply that a literary review could be coloured by editorial politics, but it’s hard not to read something gleeful in the writer’s description of how:

“Count Rostov keeps his own life running smoothly and decorously despite the efforts of the brutal and uncultured Soviet state to confound him.” 

All of which is to do a gross disservice to a fabulous book, because A Gentleman in Moscow is anything but a defence of Western capitalism and the type of inward-looking individualism that is the raison d’etre of The Express.

On the contrary: like Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, it’s a hymn to the communal virtues of work and duty, infused with comic incidents, including one scene that is pure Basil Fawlty. There are useful scraps of knowledge on subjects from mathematics to physics, while any novel that teaches you word games to play while waiting for starters to arrive must be doing something right. And there are goregous descriptions aplenty, including my favourite, which, since this is a blog, I may as well quote at length:

“Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists – the aroma of freshly ground coffee.”

The Count is an epicurean and an entertainer, but more importantly, his deeds are always underpinned by a philosophy of duty. That’s why when a troubled six year old girl is landed on his lap, after the slightest of wobbles (he’s human and a lifelong batchelor after all) he devotes himself to the task of bringing her up.

That said, you might argue that the Count’s hardships are not quite as hard as those some people experience, and there will be thousands of school teachers for whom the Count’s version of a troubled six year old is an angel from heaven compared to kids they’re dealing with day-in-day-out. And it’s relatively easy to sell the virtues of working for the storied establishment that is Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, even if the new manager is an imbecilic party stooge who doesn’t know his Chataeuneuf du Pape from his Mukuzani; not so easy perhaps if your employer is a blood-sucking corporation forcing you into one indignity after another while the board and chief executives draw seven figure pay packets.

If you’re looking for a furious call to the barricades, then A Gentleman in Moscow is not that book. But if you are looking for a book that can make you smile and allow you to approach the daily struggle with a sense of dignity and purpose, then you coulnd’t choose a better guide than the charming Count-turned waiter, Alexander Ilyich Rostov.

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