A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016, read in 2020)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This book should appeal to anyone who reads for the pleasure of reading. Towles has a knack for describing the world that, even when not impelling the story, is still so very much fun to read. The revolution of 1917 and its aftermath of Bolshevik lack of appreciation for culture is a background, but it doesn’t figure strongly in the first third of the book. In fact, for the first third of the book, the story meanders, but doesn’t really head anywhere.
Instead, we are treated to a history of Russia and its idea of itself as well as its place in the world, as viewed by a man who is unable to leave the Hotel Metropol—a luxury hotel whose purpose is at-times at odds with the purpose of the revolutionary government. It is a place that suits the gentleman’s sensibilities, but not those of the new leaders of the Soviet Union.
In the introduction, we learn that Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is to be confined to the Hotel Metropol as punishment for having been born noble. He is neither exiled nor killed because of a famous revolutionary poem attributed to him. He had been living there for a year already, after having returned from Paris after the revolution. Why did he return when nobility like him were the deposed minority former rulers? Because he is Russian and he belongs in Russia, damn the consequences for his “kind”.
We visit the hotel with the Count, going through his rituals and routines at both the fancy and more pedestrian restaurants, the barber, the seamstress and so on. The Count makes nine-year–old Nina Kulikova’s acquaintance and watches her grow up in the hotel. After a while, she is forced to move on, but she leaves him her passepartout with which he is able to explore much more of the hotel.
At the same time, the Count takes a job as the head waiter of the Boyarsky, the fancy restaurant on the second floor of the Metropol. He makes great friends with what would become the other two members of the “Triumvirate”: Emile, the chef, and Andrey, the maître’d. They tell magnificent stories. At the same time, he begins a relationship with the beguiling, intelligent, and beautiful actress Anna Urbanova.
Mischka, the Count’s friend from old days, makes good headway in the new regime, putting the finishing touches on a multi-book biography of Pushkin. He is asked to remove a sentence from one letter in the third volume in which Pushkin exclaimed over the glory of German bread, comparing it to the highly unfavorable and inadequate Russian variant. Mischka at first acquiesces, but then returns in a rage, offended to the core. He would pay for his principles with eight years of hard labor and then the “Minus Six” punishment: he would be free to travel in all of Russia minus the six great cities. The Count would see his friend only once or twice more.
The Count’s services are engaged by a Georgian Colonel Osip, who needs his erudition to learn how to deal with the outside world. The Count teaches him English and French as well as the cultures of the French, British and the Americans. Over 15 years, they become fast friends, reading many books and watching many films together. Osip is fascinated by the subversiveness and open nihilism of film noir, wondering how it is that the western governments allow it to exist. He has not quite grasped that while the Soviet was about overt suppression, America was about distraction. Orwell’s vision vs. Huxley’s.
Years later, Nina returns. She was a serious child and grew into a serious worker, intent on doing her part to further the revolution’s aim. Now, having married and had a child five years ago, she is there to ask the Count to watch her child while she searches for her husband, who’s been carted off to Siberia. She is loath to take her daughter Sofia with her, though. Would Alexander be willing to watch her for a few weeks or months until she can send for her? Of course he can. No question. He would never see Nina again.
In due course, the Count’s suave demeanor and worldly knowledge attract the attention of an American Aide-de-camp Richard Vanderwhile. They hit it off immediately and also become friends. On one side, there is Osip, whose power and rank are only hinted at and now there is Richard, on the other side, also nearly certainly more powerful than he at first seems.
Sofia is 13 years old. She has an accident playing a game with the Count—she falls down service stairs trying to race him to their apartment. He carries her to a hospital, breaking his imprisonment. His friend Osip swoops in and smooths things over, sending him back to the Metropol and assuring him that Sofia will have the best care and will recover fully.
Sofia is now 17 years old. She is still living with the Count at the Metropol. It is after WWII, nearly 1950. The Count is now 61 years old.
The orchestra conductor at the hotel discovered Sofia’s talent for piano. Over the next few years, he nurtures what is clearly not just a talent, but an absolute gift for music, for putting pathos and feeling into musical pieces of which adults several times her age are incapable. The Count is understandably proud that Sofia is excelling on all fronts.
Rostov and his troika (Emile and Andrei) are forced to take up the master of the hotel (the Bishop, formerly the most terrible waiter in the second-class restaurant and now promoted through an innate talent for sycophancy and adherence to party cant) into their meetings, making them altogether less enjoyable. Life continues. The Count’s decades-long relationship with Anna continues and grows. Stalin dies. The country shivers in the power vacuum.
Things for the Count come to a head when Sofia is invited to play in Paris in six months time, sometime in the late 50s. The Count prepares assiduously for her defection—and his own escape from the hotel. He takes his leave silently and with masterful planning and execution, rolling with a few kinks thrown into the plan by the Bishop, who gets his comeuppance, while the rest of his friends get richly rewarded with the remainder of his gold fortune that he’d kept stashed away for decades in cleverly contrived compartments in the legs of his desk.
Sofia puts on a spectacular show in Paris, then defects to the U.S. embassy, meeting up with Richard Vanderwhile and getting the large part of Rostov’s fortune hand-delivered to her then. The Count ranges into the Russian countryside, having fooled the authorities with a clever subterfuge into thinking that he’d escaped over the border into Finland. In a rustic inn, he meets up with Anna Urbanova, once again free to live out the remainder of his life with the woman he loves in the country he loves.
Osip’s favorite movies is Casablanca—a movie that he watched with the Count many times. When we see him in a final scene, in the Kremlin, in the office of the chief of the KGB, behind the desk, he has just heard of the Count’s escape and Sofia’s disappearance, to which he replies: “Round up the usual suspects.”
The Count is a gracious and polite man, relatively well-read, and of indeterminate age. The writing is lovely and appeals to my dilettantish Russophile tendencies. Towles makes references to streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and to moments in history and literature (Gogol’s Nose and Tolstoy’s Borodino and, of course, to Pushkin and Chekhov) that ring authentic for me.
Despite having been “trapped” in the Metropol Hotel for most of his adult life, Rostov’s rich inner life, philosophy and discipline allow him to consider himself to be “the luckiest man in Russia”.
“Vyshinsky: Why did you write the poem? Rostov: It demanded to be written. I simply happened to be sitting at the particular desk on the particular morning when it chose to make its demands.”
“What a marvel it had been to discover the table that folded away without a trace; and the drawers built into the base of the bed; and the wall-mounted lamps just large enough to illuminate a page. This efficiency of design was music to the young mind. It attested to a precision of purpose and the promise of adventure.”
“The three of them exhibited the same bewildered gaze that the Count had noticed on the faces of Arkady and Valentina a few hours before, and finally it struck him: When he had been carted off that morning, they had all assumed that he would never return. He had emerged from behind the walls of the Kremlin like an aviator from the wreckage of a crash.”
“On the Grand Duke’s desk stood a champagne flute and a brandy snifter. With the lean uprightness of the former looking down upon the squat rotundity of the latter, one could not help but think of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on the plains of the Sierra Morena.”
“On the Grand Duke’s desk stood a champagne flute and a brandy snifter. With the lean uprightness of the former looking down upon the squat rotundity of the latter, one could not help but think of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on the plains of the Sierra Morena. Or of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck in the shadows of Sherwood Forest. Or of Prince Hal and Falstaff before the gates of—”
“The books the bellhops had lugged to the attic had been his father’s and, devoted as they were to studies of rational philosophy and the science of modern agriculture, each promised heft and threatened impenetrability.”
““Thank you for the thought, Andrey. Normally, I would leap at the chance. But tonight, I am otherwise committed.””
“But as the Count advanced through Essays Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, his goal seemed to recede into the distance. It was suddenly as if the book were not a dining room table at all, but a sort of Sahara. And having emptied his canteen, the Count would soon be crawling across its sentences with the peak of each hard-won page revealing but another page beyond.”
“Coming off the wide marble steps that descended from the lobby, one first passed the newsstand, which offered a gentleman a hundred headlines, albeit now just in Russian.”
This makes me appreciate how in our Kiosks, you find content in at least half a dozen languages, with only half of the prominently displayed newspapers in the rotating rack in German. Many are in Turkish or French.
“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence—one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.”
“But Fate would not have the reputation it has if it simply did what it seemed it would do.”
“having torn through the first fifty pages of Herr Flammenhescher’s little monograph, Mikhail would leap to his feet and start pacing from corner to corner in order to voice his fervid agreement or furious dissent with the author’s thesis, his style, or his use of punctuation.”
“But events can unfold in such a manner that overnight the man out of step finds himself in the right place at the right time. The fashions and attitudes that had seemed so alien to him are suddenly swept aside and supplanted by fashions and attitudes in perfect sympathy with his deepest sentiments. Then, like a lone sailor adrift for years on alien seas, he wakes one night to discover familiar constellations overhead.”
“As midnight approached, the Rostov siblings would stumble from their second or third visit in search of their sleigh. Their laughter would echo under the stars and their steps would weave in wide curves back and forth across the straight tracks that they had made upon their arrival—such that in the morning their hosts would find the giant figure of a G clef transcribed by their boots in the snow.”
“The Rioja? Now there was a wine that would clash with the stew as Achilles clashed with Hector. It would slay the dish with a blow to the head and drag it behind its chariot until it tested the fortitude of every man in Troy. Besides, it plainly cost three times what the young man could afford.”
“Setting the empty box aside, the Count nodded again to the cat, pulled the strands of the second bow, and lifted the second lid . . . only to discover a third box. Dutifully, the Count repeated the debowing and unlidding with the next three boxes, until he held one the size of a matchbox. But when he untied the bow and lifted the lid on this box, inside the cozy chamber, strung on a bit of the dark green ribbon, was Nina’s passkey to the hotel.”
“And as she talked, the Count had to acknowledge once again the virtues of withholding judgment. After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”
“[…] here in suite 208 in the company of charred lemons, French wine, and memories of the sea,”
“Yes, a ghost, thought the Count, as he moved silently down the hall. Like Hamlet’s father roaming the ramparts of Elsinore after the midnight watch . . . Or like Akaky Akakievich, that forsaken spirit of Gogol’s who in the wee hours haunted the Kalinkin Bridge in search of his stolen coat”
I’ve actually read both Macbeth and The Overcoat.
““When the lilacs are in bloom, the bees’ll buzz to the Alexander Gardens and the honey’ll taste like the lilacs. But in a week or so, they’ll be buzzing to the Garden Ring, and then you’ll be tasting the cherry trees.” “The Garden Ring! How far will they go?” “Some say a bee’ll cross the ocean for a flower,” answered the old man with a smile. “Though I’ve never known one to do so.””
“So as the summer sun began to rise, the fire began to die, and the bees began to circle overhead, the two men spoke of days from their childhoods when the wagon wheels rattled in the road, and the dragonflies skimmed the grass, and the apple trees blossomed for as far as the eye could see.”
“The Nizhny Novgorod Province had a hundred prominent families, which over the course of two centuries had intermarried and divorced, borrowed and lent, accepted and regretted, offended, defended, and dueled—while championing an array of conflicting positions that varied by generation, gender, and house. And at the center of this maelstrom was the Countess Rostova’s dining room with its two tables for twenty standing side by side.”
“[…] the Count reviewed the menu in reverse order as was his habit, having learned from experience that giving consideration to appetizers before entrées can only lead to regrets. And here was a perfect example. For the very last item on the menu was the evening’s sole necessity: osso buco—a dish that was best preceded by a light and lively appetizer.”
“For years now, with a bit of a smile, the Count had remarked that this or that was behind him—like his days of poetry or travel or romance. But in so doing, he had never really believed it. In his heart of hearts, he had imagined that, even if unattended to, these aspects of his life were lingering somewhere on the periphery, waiting to be recalled. But looking at the bottle in his hand, the Count was struck by the realization that, in fact, it was all behind him. Because the Bolsheviks, who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.”
“The staffing trend that had begun with the appointment of the Bishop had continued unabated—such that any young man with more influence than experience could now don the white jacket, clear from the left, and pour wine into water glasses.”
“I have no doubt, mein Herr, that your remark regarding Russia’s contributions to the West was a form of inverted hyperbole—an exaggerated diminution of the facts for poetic effect.”
“Can you conceive of a work greater in scope than War and Peace? One that moves so deftly from the parlor to the battlefield and back again? That so fully investigates how the individual is shaped by history, and history by the individual?”
Although he published a long essay arguing _against_ the idea/concept/conceit of the great man in history.
“the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely. Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of a grassy riverbank . . . the trace of a summer breeze . . . a suggestion of a pergola. . . . But most of all, there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom. Abram was nodding his head.
““Nizhny Novgorod,” he said. And it was. Unmistakably so.
““All these years, they must have been listening to us,” Abram added in a whisper.
“The Count and the handyman both looked toward the roof’s edge where the bees, having traveled over a hundred miles and applied themselves in willing industry, now wheeled above their hives as pinpoints of blackness, like the inverse of stars.”
““Ah,” said Emile with the grim smile of the commander who prefers to be outnumbered.”
“at the very moment that he recognized his old friend’s script, a lady with a lapdog rose from his favorite chair between the potted palms. Ever respectful of Fate, the Count postponed his visit to the seamstress, claimed his seat, and opened the letter.”
“But art is the most unnatural minion of the state. Not only is it created by fanciful people who tire of repetition even more quickly than they tire of being told what to do, it is also vexingly ambiguous. Just when a carefully crafted bit of dialogue is about to deliver a crystal-clear message, a hint of sarcasm or the raising of an eyebrow can spoil the entire effect. In fact, it can give credence to a notion that is the exact opposite of that which was intended. So, perhaps it is understandable that governing authorities are bound to reconsider their artistic preferences every now and then, if for no other reason than to keep themselves fit.”
“For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.”
“Now that was the life of the Boyarsky—a battle that must be waged with exacting precision while giving the impression of effortlessness, every single night of the year.”
““You have me at a disadvantage.””
I was waiting for this sentence.
““The surest way to insult a Walloon is to mistake him for a Frenchman, though they live but a few miles apart and share the same language.””
“The Count took a sip of his wine and returned the glass to the table.
““You are almost certainly from eastern Georgia.”
“The captain sat up with an expression of enthusiasm.
““Extraordinary. Do I have an accent?” “Not that’s distinguishable. But then armies, like universities, are where accents are most commonly shed.”
““Then why eastern Georgia?”
“The Count gestured to the wine. “Only an eastern Georgian would start his meal with a bottle of Rkatsiteli.”
““Because he’s a hayseed?”
““Because he misses home.””
“Life has been generous to me in its variety.”
““As both a student of history and a man devoted to living in the present, I admit that I do not spend a lot of time imagining how things might otherwise have been. But I do like to think there is a difference between being resigned to a situation and reconciled to it.””
“With limited instruction, he had perfected the art of withholding his insights, forgoing his witticisms, curbing the use of metaphors, similes, and analogies—in essence, exercising every muscle of poetic restraint. In fact, if the reporters whom he was dutifully transcribing had only seen his handiwork, they would have taken off their hats, bowed their heads, and acknowledged that here was a master of objectivity.]”
““Ah. The man of letters has lost his pen. Where is it now . . . , hmm? If not in the kitchen, perhaps you should look in the blue pagoda of your fine Chinoiserie.” And turning with his smirk, the Bishop slipped diagonally down the hall.”
Calling back to the Count’s poem.
““What is a man supposed to do when confronted with such madness? I struck the passage out. Then I walked from the room without a word.””
Leave it in. Let someone else strike it. While my life might be worth nothing to you, and understandably so, my principles are worth everything to me. If, for whatever bizarre reason, it is my imprimatur that is important to you, then you won’t get it.
“It could have been a tale from Gogol with Shalamov playing the part of a well-fed privy councillor impressed by his own rank. And the offending passage, hearing of its pending fate, could have climbed out a window and escaped down an alley never to be heard from again—that is, until it reappeared ten years later on the arm of a French countess, wearing a pince-nez and the Légion d’honneur.”
““The future of Russian poetry is the haiku!” Mishka shouted in conclusion, then, with great satisfaction, he slammed the door on his way out. In fact, so satisfying was this gesture that he slammed every door that stood between him and the street below.”
“Naturally, the Count had watched in recent years as age began to take its toll on the Triumvirate. He had noticed the occasional tremor in Andrey’s left hand and the creeping deafness in Emile’s right ear. He had noticed the graying of the former’s hair and the thinning of the latter’s. But with Mishka, here were not simply the ravages of time. Here were the marks of one man upon another, of an era upon its offspring.”
““Do you know that back in ’30, when they announced the mandatory collectivization of farming, half our peasants slaughtered their own livestock rather than give them up to the cooperatives? Fourteen million head of cattle left to the buzzards and flies.””
“do you think the achievements of the Americans—envied the world over—came without a cost? Just ask their African brothers. And do you think the engineers who designed their illustrious skyscrapers or built their highways hesitated for one moment to level the lovely little neighborhoods that stood in their way? I guarantee you, Alexander, they laid the dynamite and pushed the plungers themselves. As I’ve said to you before, we and the Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. But where they have done so in service of their beloved individualism, we are attempting to do so in service of the common good.””
“And where Nina would not hesitate to cut someone off in midassertion in order to make a contrary point and then declare the matter decided once and for all, Sofia would listen so attentively and with such a sympathetic smile that her interlocutor, having been given free rein to express his views at considerable length, often found his voice petering out as he began to question his own premises. . . .”
“One could spend a lifetime mastering the technical aspects of the piano and never achieve a state of musical expression—that alchemy by which the performer not only comprehends the sentiments of the composer, but somehow communicates them to her audience through the manner of her play.”
“Opening the narrow glass door in the clock’s cabinet, the Count reached inside and found the little key still on its hook. Inserting it into the keyhole, the Count wound the clock to its limit, set the time, and gave the pendulum a nudge, thinking: Let the old man keep time for a few hours more.”
We had a clock like that, growing up. Mom always kept it wound and ticking.
“"But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.””
“But ever since the Count had become headwaiter of the Boyarsky, its customers could expect their server to look them in the eye, answer their questions, offer recommendations, and flawlessly record their preferences—without ever taking his hands from behind his back.”
“When the Count had quietly closed the door, he turned to Anna, whose expression was unusually grave. “When did the Minister of Culture start taking a personal interest in Sofia?” he asked. “Tomorrow afternoon,” she replied. “At the latest.””
““Someone has told you about my conversation with Director Vavilov.” The Count rearranged his fork and knife, which had somehow become misaligned. “I may have heard something from someone,” he said noncommittally.”
“Now it was luminescence that was moving across the city, growing closer and closer, until the windows of the Kremlin flashed on followed by the chandelier overhead—and the combined dinner of the Presidium and the Council of Ministers erupted into justified applause. For, in fact, the lights of the city seemed to burn brighter with the electricity from the first nuclear power plant in the world.”
“Given the tightness of security at the railway crossing into Finland, it is presumed that Rostov disembarked in Vyborg in order to cross the border on foot.”
That’s How Lenin got back in. And John Reed as well.
““No, sir. There is nothing else. But how shall we proceed?” The Chief Administrator considered this question for a moment and then, leaning back in his chair with the barest hint of a smile, replied: “Round up the usual suspects.””
“But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world?”
“And there in the corner, at a table for two, her hair tinged with gray, the willowy woman waited.”