A review of “A gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

This book landed in my post box as a birthday gift from one of my sisters. She knows me too well, perhaps. I have a stack of books waiting to be read that is literally, and not metaphorically, longer than my arm. If I read through them all religiously, one by one, that would be all my reading for the rest of this year and much of next year too. Fortunately though, I’m not obsessive about the order books are read in. Any book, landing on my desk, coming into my hands, or coming to my attention, can come “straight in at No. 1” and jump to the head of the queue. Also – a habit that may not be so common – I can and do read many books at once (not literally at once…I mean that at any one moment I am part way through anything up to a half-dozen different books, and can pick any of them up and continue where I left off before. That’s possible because of one of the most noble inventions mankind has ever created: I speak of course, of the bookmark. Less fortunate (or perhaps saner) people read books serially, one at a time, as if they were TV programmes or films.

In this delightful and beautifully written story, we read of a man who spends the balance of his life stuck in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. That is the story: an aristocratic individual, the gentleman of the title, is condemned by the very early Bolsheviks, in the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917, to a life of house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. Unlikely as it may seem…

It is to say the least, a somewhat far-fetched premise, something of a whimsy or a fantasy, but as a plot device it allows the author to describe the life of a big city grand hotel under the Soviets. Our hero, a man in his twenties at the start, remains in the hotel until his sixties. In that time, a number of adventures come his way. His moustache is cut off by an angry Bolshevik in the barbers. He meets and forms a most unusual relationship with a little girl of 10 or so, who – again how far-fetched is this – gifts him with a master key for every door in the building. A good deal more believable are is his on-and-off afternoon liaisons with a beautiful female movie star, his relationship with other members of the hotel staff, and his decades-long relationship with a senior official of the regime who wants to learn from him, over monthly dinners, about how the west works.

Far be it from me to poke holes in a good story – and it is a good story, by the way – but I can do no other. How on earth does a man stay fit and trim stuck indoors for life, yet still eating two or three square meals a day, with alcoholic drinks? Every day. Even six flights of stairs twice a day aren’t going to be enough there. I know a little about climbing stairs every day, and I know quite a lot about calories.

All the aspects of the story combine to make him a kind of invincible superhero: he has looks and charm as an aristocrat. He clearly has money though who pays for four decades worth of staying in a hotel – even in a tiny garret up in the rafters – is never made clear. He never gets poorly, and deeply unconvincingly, the Great Terror of the 1930’s passes him by. I write this because one of the other books I am reading at present is “Man is wolf to man” by Janusz Bardach (co-written with Kathleen Gleeson) about life in the Soviet prison system. I had to put it down as it was affecting my mental health, so violent and unpleasant was the world described by Janusz Bardach. And then I read this novel about a perfumed aristocrat in a Moscow hotel!

The author has therefore, written an exceptionally pleasant and readable novel about manners and human relationships, and set it right in the middle of one of the most unpleasant and horrible periods of human history – a time when (certainly in Russia) individual humans counted for little or nothing. I’m hoping that the author does not harbour fond feelings for the Soviet system, for the communist era and for the whole tissue of malevolent silliness that is Marxism. As he’s a Yale man (not a recommendation in the view of some authors I think highly of) this may be a vain hope. Soon enough I will know, for his work was sufficiently entertaining for me to look out for his other books and read them too.