It was quite late at night last year when I switched off my reading lamp and checked out of the grand, turn-of-the-century Metropol Hotel on Moscow’s Theater Square. With a sense of deep satisfaction tinged with sadness, I wondered what I always wonder when leaving an unforgettable place: Would I ever return?
My stay at the Metropol was a fictional one, which made it no less real, a literary foray into a seemingly infinite world of chandeliers and ballrooms, endless hallways, elegant suites, bustling kitchens, and the kind of secret warrens found only in period buildings with back staircases and servants quarters.
We can all check in to the Metropol this Saturday at 4:15 p.m. when novelist Amor Towles presents his latest novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, at the San Antonio Book Festival. I have the pleasure of introducing Towles. His talk will be on the third floor West Terrace of the Central Library. Afterwards, the author will take audience questions and sign books.
A Gentleman in Moscow is Towles’ second novel, a highly polished work of historical fiction that somehow exceeds his stunning debut novel Rules of Civility. His latest work unfolds almost entirely inside the Metropol in Bolshevik-controlled Russia. The year is 1922 and Count Alexander Rostov, an unrepentant member of the dethroned aristocracy, declines to seek political refuge in Paris.
Coming home and staying home, it turns out, carried serious consequences. Count Rostov is sentenced by a people’s tribunal to spend the rest of his days under house arrest in Moscow’s ultimate symbol of Old World bourgeoise custom and elegance. Step beyond the hotel’s gilded front doors, Rostov is warned, and you will face a firing squad.
The concept of a novel built so strongly around one central character confined to a single place for a period of three decades does not follow any fictional lineage I can recall. You’d have to go back to 19th century accounts of shipwrecked sailors on deserted islands, but the Metropol, as it unfolds in Towles’ hands, is no strip of beach in an endless ocean.
The Metropol is as big as Russia itself, vast and complex, alive with contradictions, a constantly adapting and evolving world seeking to survive with dignity the chaos and uncertainty that surround it. The Metropol is a large stage with a cast of fascinating characters, many of whom treat Rostov more like a family member than an imprisoned guest.
It has been a number of years since a novel has captured me with the same intensity as A Gentleman in Moscow, and so it was that I found myself reading late into the night last year, unwilling to sleep with only a few pages still remaining. It was, indeed, with a sense of satisfaction tinged with sadness that I arrived at page 462, the novel’s last. I wish I had read more slowly.
Rostov is already an old school aristocrat when we first meet him – a young man in his 30s who has made the most of a privileged life after losing his parents to cholera and being raised by a grand duke in the extended royal family. He speaks four languages, reads six, is well traveled, and has spent years in Paris. He displays a worldly appreciation of his fellow men and women at all levels of society, a trait not shared by many of Russia’s privileged royalty before their astonishing fall from power 100 years ago.
Rostov is, naturally, a gourmand in a country of acute shortages now run by committees and apparatchiks with a greater appetite for reports of rising factory output or communal farm production than a well-set table sparkling with silver and crystal.
Towles uses the passage of time to layer Rostov with complexity that is both central to his personality and his graceful acceptance of his circumstances. Chapter by chapter, year by year, our protagonist remains quite comfortable with the material pleasures of Russia’s former 1%; at the same time his humanity grows as he makes the most of life under house arrest.
Great food and wine help move us through time. Rostov can lose himself, at least for the moment, with the first spooning of a mid-day soup. He has a singular talent for the most minute deconstructions of the hotel chef’s masterpieces, such as the bouillabaisse made possible only by the most dogged and secretive foraging of impossible-to-find ingredients. No touch of a rare spice or seasonal herb escapes the discriminating palate of Rostov.
It’s a world where gold sovereigns hidden like stacked poker chips inside the hollowed out legs of an inherited writing desk help underwrite Rostov’s internal exile at the Metropol. Still, even four legs of gold can’t stand forever, and eventually Rostov is forced to accept employment as the hotel’s head waiter. He does so with elan, without the slightest hint of false pride as he joins the serving class. It’s one of Towles’ most humanizing sleights of hand as he brings the reader along, all of us secretly hoping for Rostov’s eventual pardon or even escape.
Towles surrounds Rostov in his solitary confinement with a rich cast of characters – diplomats, journalists, dissidents, a barber, a florist, a poet, Bolshevik bosses, a parade of loyal hotel staff members, and one unforgettable 9-year-old girl named Nina, suddenly left in Rostov’s parental custody by her proletariat mother bound for the hinterlands.
Towles has pulled off one of the hardest tricks in fiction writing: following a critically acclaimed debut novel with one that is even better. This is Towles’ first visit to San Antonio. He might not check back in for some time, so do not miss him. For a complete schedule of Saturday’s San Antonio Book festival, click here.