‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles– In Praise of the Literary Stylist

 

A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles    (2016) – 462 pages

 

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After now reading two novels by Amor Towles I have come to the conclusion that he is a great literary stylist on the order of Vladimir Nabokov.  A literary stylist knows that it is not our final destination that matters but the pleasures we have along the way. A stylist can go on and describe a game of Hide the Thimble for several pages, and we will not complain; in fact we will be charmed.

“For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.” 

The year is 1922. Count Rostov is an unrepentant aristocrat in Moscow even though now the Communists are in charge in Russia. This usually meant being “put up against a wall”, but instead the authorities restrict Count Rostov to the Metropol, a showcase hotel for foreign dignitaries visiting Moscow.  He becomes a head waiter in the hotel, a position for which he is well suited.  He cannot leave the hotel.  He is reassigned to a small room at the hotel.

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ tracks the Count’s entire stay at the hotel from 1922 all the way up to 1952.  He is a part of a triumvirate which also includes the chef Emile and the maître d’hôtel Andrey who keep the hotel and restaurant running smoothly. One might assume that things would get claustrophobic being restricted to a hotel, but one would be wrong.  The Count’s days are filled with elegance and delight.  Famous actresses and authors and diplomats stay at the hotel.  The Count becomes friends with the young Nina, and later she drops off her daughter Sofia at the hotel for him to bring up which he somehow manages admirably.

Sometimes the bureaucrats intrude upon the hotel.  In the Metropol’s wine cellar, “was assembled a staggering collection of Cabernets and Chardonnays, Rieslings, and Syrahs, ports and Madieras – a century of vintages from across the continent of Europe. “  A complaint was filed that this fine wine list ran counter to the ideals of the Revolution.  The Commissar of Food then forced the hotel to remove all of the identifying labels from every bottle of wine, and from then on the hotel could only distinguish red wine from white wine with every bottle sold at a single price.

“Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself.  Yet here it was, cast back into the sea of anonymity, that realm of averages and unknowns.” 

The entire novel is written with a distinctive Old World charm.   Amor Towles is a sensuous stylist who doesn’t waste his skills on something as mundane as sex but uses them instead to describe a spectacular food dish or a unique bottle of wine.  However it is in the intriguing and warm interactions between characters where Towles excels.

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ casts a likable alluring spell like no other novel I have ever read.

 

Grade:   A

 

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16 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds like a must-read.
    As a (very low-level) collector of wine, that snippet both appalled and delighted me. Appalled for the obvious reason, but delighted that an ordinary person might find herself sipping at a brilliant rare wine!

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  2. This sounds terrific. I’ve read Rules of Civility and thought it was so well done.

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  3. Oh, I was so pleased to read your review as I’ve been wondering about this one – it sounds very good and right up my street!

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  4. *wondering* of course, not *wonderful*!

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  5. I really missed reading your posts. You always made me fall in love with every one of the books that you most admired. And this sentence inspired me, “A literary stylist knows that it is not our final destination that matters but the pleasures we have along the way.” Have a nice work week! 🙂

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    • Hi Note to Self,
      I really appreciate your comment. It makes me feel that I’m not posting into a Great Void. 🙂
      After I graduated from college, I took an Extension course in Art History which covered art from Giotto up to modern times. The course was for no credit, but the instructor made the slides of the paintings come alive. The instructor’s words helped me see the little details that went into each painting. That is probably the start of my attempts to appreciate “the merely pleasant”.

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      • I’m always impressed by the “unfamous” people who are the “little” heros that helped shape our personality. Even today a colleague from my times in College said one sentence in the middle of many that made me pause and see the job market completely differently. And I also always admired people like you, who publish all their most heartfelt thoughts into the world, when it feels like they are actually publishing into the ether… I’ve away from blogs since 2011. But I’m pleasantly to get back to it and still find you on my Readers list. 🙂

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  6. Oh, this sounds fab. I’ve not heard of this author before so thanks for bringing him to my attention.

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  7. […] soon as I saw the title that someone had recommended it so I brought it home.  It turned out to be Tony from Tony’s Book World who’d described Towles […]

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