A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

There’s many a time in this book where you just read a passage and want to stop in order to sit with it a moment longer. 

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I finished reading this novel in the small hours of the morning a couple of nights ago. 

Getting to a certain point, had to decide to savour the end or devour it all in one complete sweep. 

Or so went the mindset at the time.  However, in the end the decision came less as a choice less between these factors, and more from being compelled to just keep turning the page.  The same result, but not through greed, but compulsion.  The quite, subtle, beautiful restraint of both the story and the main character were coming to a head, and with a clear bias of being in his corner, I wanted to find out how things concluded for him.

The main character is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov.  Also named Sasha, Count, Your Excellency and a range of other epithets throughout the book.  Actually, this propensity for a breadth of monikers for a single character is one of the topics in the handful of times that the writer takes time out from the general narrative of the story to take the opportunity to speak directly to the reader.  It is an effective tool – in this particular instance it is to talk to the non-Russian audience relating to the propensity for the Russian habit towards such an array of names. 

It is one of a few ways in which the peppering of footnotes throughout the text provide depth, backgrounding and context.  I shall segue at this juncture to the topic of context, for in ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ this element is one to be considered in terms of ‘bookends’ of expansiveness.

The book is set in Russia, covering from the end of the 19th Century, up until the late 1950.  It takes in the Russian Revolution, war, epochal events and how they impact on cities, countries, cultures, and the footnotes and the research within them are effective, but just one way that these topics are dealt with. 

In saying this, the heart of the story lives at the level of the individual.  And it is this perspective of the individual that forms the other bookend of scale.  For it is a story told from up close, revolving around the one character, and mostly the one location.

As an aristocrat before the Russian Revolution, the beginning of the book is in the form of notes Alexander’s (for while given a range of names, it is telling that this is never shortened to a simple Alex) trial for being so. 

Most likely to be taken outside, put against the wall and shot, a turn of chance instead has him sentenced under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel, as a ‘Person of Interest,’ for the rest of his life.  And it is this life, in this one hotel, where we find the rest of the novel.

However, as the novel itself highlights, the relative scale that can be fit within the boundaries of such confines and such walls are what one can, and does, make of them. 

As someone who has had ‘it all,’ and lost most of it, the nature of the main character in how he deals with his (seemingly) reduced circumstances over the years, and how he grows within these new settings, is a large part of the beauty and the lightness of which I wish to highlight as defining strengths of the writing.

For this is simply a beautifully rendered novel.  I have read a few of the Russian classics over the years, but not so much in contemporary literature.  However, if I was going to stereotype in relation to the temperament and sensibility of Russian writers from my limited experience, is would be to confirm these elements as connected positives.  The lightness that I mention is front and centre here.

There is care in relation to both the characters and the settings.  It is as though there is a love and pride of both being exuded by the author, as well as the kind of concern that happens when you feel for your close loved ones. 

In this case for the author it seems his loved ones are his characters, but also, perhaps even more, so his country.  Towles waxes lyrical about it often, and is obviously both concerned and enamoured when it comes to the topic.  One example of this, of many, is when one of the principle characters proposes a theory that it is a national character trait that Russia is more inclined to destroy what it creates than other countries.  This vexes the main character Alexander, and in another characteristic of Russian literature I have found, time and word count is given to expounding on this idea from the perspective of a range of other characters.  It is not enough for the topic to be raised here, it instead requires consideration. 

Which itself lends to another trait of the novel, which is to give time and space for things to be delicately considered and observed throughout.

This is not a rushed novel.  No need to push like an action movie from one hyped-up intense scene to another, not allowing the reader to catch their breath.  I’m not against that, and like it when done well, but just to say that if you’re looking for a fast-paced suspenseful cliff-hanger of a novel, then look elsewhere.  However, if you are looking to melt and cascade slowly into the form that a novel provides - to give it its time and space, its delicacies, its turns of phrase, then this is for you.  Utterly.

To add to this, if you wish to read a character that you wish to support, to care for, to perhaps want to be influenced by, in order to track more to your better self, then this is also a novel for you.  This presumption is not due to a wish on my behalf to be an aristocrat, or someone captive inside a hotel for decades.  It is rather a recognition of the way that ‘His Excellency’ takes on board life and both examines it and milks it for what it is worth.  The way he empathises with others.  Cares for them.  Learns from them.  Wishes to presume nothing, despite the skills and knowledge at his disposal.

He is an understated character, who impacts all the more for when and how he chooses to both speak and act.  The book is in a similar vein.  How this melodic, slow cascading character and book builds to the end is what had me compelled to stay up and continue until I found out how it ended, for both the story and the main character.

The last thing to mention is an element particular to my love of good writing, and it is the ability to have a good turn of phrase.  And there’s many a time in this book where you just read a passage and want to stop in order to sit with it a moment longer.  To either re-read it for the joy of the written word, or to just give the passage time and space to breath and be considered in its own right.  Beautiful writing can and should be recognised.  It is the defining element of this book, I think. 

If you haven’t guessed already, I recommend this read.  Go into it knowing that it is slow in its unfolding.  But as I began with, once all the elements are gathered, and the accumulation of the decades condenses into the final chapters of the novel, the impact is for me more engaging than many novels designed solely for their ability to get you to turn the page.  Investment is its own reward here.  I’m glad I took the time.

  • Chris O’Malley