Likely Stories: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Aug 2, 2018

Fantastic story of a Count under house arrest ostensibly for the rest of his life.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

 

Numerous friends have urged me to review A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  As the pressure increased, I surrendered.  Then, after reading this terrific story, I asked myself, “What took you so long?”  Towles has penned a superb story filled with humor, pathos, and thrills galore. 

Count Alexander Rostov was a nobleman in the waning days of Tsar Nicolas II and the Romanov family.  Alexander was in Paris with his sister when the revolution began.  He immediately returned home.  In 1922 he was hauled before “The Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.”  The Count feared the worst, but some high party officials recognized him as “among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause.  Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to the hotel of which you are so fond.  But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.” (5).  Despite this ominous beginning, much of the novel is full of humor, jokes, literary references, pleasant dining, gallons of wine and meetings with old friends. 

Alexander was escorted from the trial venue to the hotel and his room.  Towles writes, “On the third floor, the count walked down the red-carpeted hallway toward his suite—an interconnected bedroom, bath, dining room, and grand salon with eight-foot windows overlooking the lindens of Theatre Square.  And there the rudeness of the day awaited” (10).  The Count was given a room in the attic of the hotel.  Towles continues, “Among the furnishings destined for his new quarters, the Count chose two high-back chairs, his grandmother’s oriental coffee table, and a favorite set of porcelain plates” (11).  He hardly had room for a picture of his sister, a leather case, and a few odds and ends.

While dining one day, a young girl in a lemon-yellow dress began staring at the Count.  Slowly, she befriends Alexander, and they become close friends.  They pass the time with games and discussions.  Nina raises the subject of what is a princess.  Towles writes, “‘I would be ever so grateful, […] if you would share with me some of the rules of being a princess.’  ‘The Rules? […] But, Nina,’ the Count said with a smile, ‘being a princess is not a game.’ Nina stared at the Count with an expression of patience.  ‘I am certain that you know what I mean.  Those things that are expected of a princess” (49). 

In one adventure, Nina and Alexander sneak into a balcony during a party conference.  Towles writes, “Here indeed, was a formidable sentence—one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.  For its apparent purpose was to catalogue without fear or hesitation every single virtue of the Union including but not limited to its unwavering shoulders, its undaunted steps, the clanging of its hammers in summer, the shoveling of its coal in the winter, and the hopeful sound of its whistles in the night.  But in the concluding phrases of this impressive sentence, at the very culmination as it were, was the observation that through their tireless efforts, Railway Workers of Russia ‘facilitate communication and trade across the provinces’” (68).  Someone is in dire need of an English teacher.

Amor Towles magnificent and absorbing novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, is hard to lay aside.  You will not soon forget this story.  10 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!