I read Towles’s Gentleman In Moscow on the recommendation of two friends whose reading opinions I value. They did not steer me wrong: Gentleman is a wonderful book about a wonderful man, a “gentleman” by birth and a “gentle man” by temperament. It was an opportune time to read Towles’s novel: with Russia playing strongman and all of us emerging from endless lock-downs…what better book to read than one about a Russian character, Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced to a life-time’s house arrest in the Metropol Hotel overlooking Red Square? Yet there isn’t much of the topical in Towles’s Gentleman: to start, the timelessness of the Count’s setting, a storied old hotel which keeps its character through history’s vagaries, offering elegance, steadfast grace and service, comfort and civility to its guests as its denizens. History happens “out there,” in Red Square and beyond: revolution, war, famine, oppression, genocide, injustice, while the hotel carries on. Nevertheless, the snake is never far from the tree: cruelty and evil worm their way in, but in the inimitable characters of the Count and his friends, the Metropol’s loyal staff or devotees, we read about the circumvention of malevolence via cunning goodness, the heart of the novel’s theme. As such, Towles’s Gentleman is a comedy in the Fryian sense, moving toward possibility, towards, as the Count would agree, faith, hope, and love (with his charmingly, parenthetically exclamatory and the “greatest of these is love!”).
From the back-cover-blurb, some of the plot’s detail: “When, in 1922, thirty-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel near the Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must now live in an attic room as some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold. Unexpectedly, the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry into a world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships with the hotel’s denizens. But when fate puts the life of a young girl in his hands, he must draw on all his ingenuity to protect the future she deserves,” bringing us from that 1922 tribunal to 1954 and the Count’s 65th year as we turn the final page.
In the novel’s course, we witness the Count make friends with the hotel’s maître d’, Andrey, and temperamental chef, Emile, seamstress Marina, his coffee-making roof-top companion, the janitor Abram, and a plethora of visitors, the film star, Anna Urbanova; an American diplomat, a British aristocrat, and even a Politburo member. He is occasionally visited by friends from his past, such as the hapless Mishka. But his first friend is a girl who wears yellow and questions everything, Nina Kulikova. Years later, another girl enters his life, the one the blurb tells us needs her future protected. Towles draws everyone on his canvas with love and humour, but no one more so than Count Rostov.
Rostov is an idealized character, but one near impossible not to love. He approaches every obstacle, every cruelty, every humiliation with good cheer and a cunning, “gentle” adaptability. When the girl’s future is ensured, Rostov gives her this advice, which can stand as a description of Towles’s vision of his protagonist: “…the Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” Count Rostov, in every scene, except one, wherein he needs to be saved rather than doing the saving, exhibits these qualities. For example, when the Count, post-tribunal, must give up his comfortable suite to live in what is, at best, a garret (with an ever-more-honest understanding of his window’s size; he thinks, at first, it is the size of checkerboard only to eventually admit to its being the size of a postage stamp), he surveys the loss of his most prized possessions, the remnants of his beautiful country home in Nizhny Novgorod, his grandmother’s furniture, with this thought: “But, of course, a thing is just a thing. And so, slipping his sister’s scissors into his pocket, the Count looked once more at what heirlooms remained and then expunged them from his heartache forever.” It isn’t that the Count doesn’t feel the pain of loss, it’s in his understanding of what matters that he can “expunge” the thing and carry the memory. In the Count, we find a profound expression of cheerful stoicism, rendered in Towles’s quaintly nineteenth-century-echoing third-person narration.
Confined within the Metropol, Towles creates a world and a man with the strokes of adventure, humour, kindness, friendship, conviviality, and love. Though reading the novel will leave you feeling as if it’s, at times, amusingly episodic, Towles, as he has a character describe in one scene, built his story like a mosaic, a kaleidoscope: the pieces take a long time to fall into place, but when they do, let’s say, without spoiling, the resultant HEA is glorious, not devoid of loss or sadness, but quite quite magnificent and, ultimately, deeply, truly happy.