Viking, 480 pages, $27 (c2016)
“A Gentleman in Moscow” is one of the best books I have read in a long time. It is quietly beautiful and effective the way Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” is. American author Amor Towles’ writing is delicious and vibrant about a topic that could be lugubrious and depressing.
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov has been placed under house arrest as the Bolsheviks overthrow the aristocratic rule of Russia and establish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The “house” in which Alexander must now live is the famous Metropole Hotel in Moscow. Not too bad a set-up, except he is banished from his luxurious suite to an attic room, once reserved for the maids.
“A Gentleman” covers about thirty years in Alexander’s life, from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s. Although many trying circumstances come his way, he remains a gentleman throughout, and that is the simple yet satisfying plot of the book. Alexander is clever, intelligent, thoughtful, observant, worldly, and unflappable.
Many other characters inhabit the hotel, and each one is wonderfully drawn.
Here is an examples of Towles’ writing. While watching a significant formative meeting of the USSR, Alexander notices that an administrative matter almost derails progress:
“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence — one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard. For its apparent purpose was to catalog without fear or hestitation every single virtue of the Union including but not limited to: its unwavering shoulders, its undaunted steps, the clanging of its hammers in summer, the shoveling of its coal in winter, and the hopeful sound of its whistles in the night.”