A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) is set in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow from 1922 to 1954.
The fictional story is about Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who, on 21 June 1922, at the age of 32, is placed under house arrest in a 6th-floor attic of the Metropol Hotel for writing a poem that incites revolutionary action. A luxurious room on the 3rd floor had been his home for the past four years, but now he has been relegated to a cramped attic with only the bare essentials.
Count Rostov aims to make the best of his situation, with a one-eyed cat and a portrait of his sister Helena for company. He has the whole hotel at his leisure, with its florist, barber, two restaurants, a bar, and a card room, but if he steps one foot outside the hotel he will be shot.
He has visitors, such as Mikhail (Mischka) his university friend and poet, and he befriends other guests, such as the actress Anna Urbanova and nine-year-old Nina Kulikova who lives in the hotel with her father. But he has already decided that on the 10th anniversary of his sister Helena’s death on 22 June 1926 – in four years time – he too will end his life.
He is not a depressed man – in fact, he is quite the opposite – aristocratic, charming, polite, quiet, and calm. His life now is to retain his dignity and to find purpose in everyday routines.
Fate is kind as the hotel staff and Helena’s portrait watches over him. Just as Russia was changing politically and socially so too was the Metropol Hotel and the people in it. External events have no effect on Rostov in this protective cocoon, until one day.
This is a beautifully crafted novel, but not one of action and adventure. It is a gentle, serene picture of resignation and resolve, punctuated with meals, social gossip at the bar, and conversations about travel, food, science and life – everything except politics.
Count Rostov is a likeable character among likeable characters. Yet there is something special and gripping in the description of each day, the views from the window and the roof, and the loyalty of those around him. The ending is amazing.
Photographs: Amor Towles from blog.ctnews.com (top); Metropol Hotel and Amor Towles at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow from amortowles.com