Soviet House Arrest

A Gentleman in Moscow     Amor Towles     (2016)

For Americans who grew up during the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union was a scary place. Only a little information leaked out about everyday life there: long lines to purchase basic necessities, people crammed ten to a room in tiny apartments, the KGB ready to pounce on any political or social dissent. So Amor Towles’s fictional foray into Moscow’s elegant Metropol Hotel in the years from 1922 to 1954 is captivating on many levels. Towles posits that high-level Communist Party officials still wined and dined themselves and foreign dignitaries, right through the Depression of the 1930s, and that ordinary Soviet citizens found small bits of happiness despite privations and surveillance. Some displayed great courage in adversity. Towles’s portrait of the fictional Count Alexander Rostov gives us a glimpse into what might have happened to one of the ousted aristocrats in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In 1922, the erudite and cultured young Count Rostov is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, just off Red Square in Moscow. This is not exile to Siberia, but if Rostov walks out the door of the hotel, he will be shot. The Count, relegated to a tiny attic room, approaches his predicament with the utmost composure. Since his own family members are all dead, he gradually fashions himself a family from the employees and guests of the Metropol. While chaos and war unfold outside the Metropol, all is grace and style inside. Count Rostov is, to me, a Russian version of Lord Peter Wimsey, from the 1930s British mystery novels of Dorothy L. Sayers. Yes, he can be snobbish at times, but he’s generous, principled, and unwaveringly loyal to his friends.

As the years of Rostov’s life tick by, Towles tosses off details about the Metropol in one witty scene after another. Pay close attention to the most minuscule of these details, which Towles is constructing carefully as he builds toward the denouement of his novel. You can easily get pulled into enjoyment of individual episodes, as friends arrive to visit Rostov, a famous actress becomes his lover, and a young girl takes him behind the scenes to secret places in the enormous hotel. Rostov comes to know every cranny of the hotel intimately, and this knowledge will serve him well as the plot whirls to a conclusion in the final hundred pages of this 462-page book.

“Sophisticated” does not begin to do justice to Towles’s writing style. Here he is describing a clock: “Suddenly, that long-strided watchman of the minutes caught up with his bowlegged brother at the top of the dial. As the two embraced, the spring’s within the clock’s casing loosened, the wheels spun, and the miniature hammer fell, setting off the first of those dulcet tones that signaled the arrival of noon.” (32)

Here he is in the hotel kitchen, describing a bouillabaisse, the ingredients assembled with tremendous difficulty in a Soviet Union with closed borders: “One first tastes the broth—that simmered distillation of fish bones, fennel, and tomatoes, with their hearty suggestions of Provence. One then savors the tender flakes of haddock and the briny resilience of the mussels, which have been purchased on the docks from the fisherman. One marvels at the boldness of the oranges arriving from Spain and the absinthe poured in the taverns. And all of these various impressions are somehow, collected, composed, and brightened by the saffron—that essence of summer sun which, having been harvested in the hills of Greece and packed by mule to Athens, has been sailed across the Mediterranean in a felucca. In other words, with the very first spoonful, one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille—where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life.” (221-222)

I guessed some but not all of the elements of caper that caps the plot of A Gentleman in Moscow. The surprises were highly enjoyable.