This is War & Peace-lite, set over a century later with a different kind of war. And while the original covers a huge sweep of country from Napoleon’s battlefields to the St Petersburg salons, country peasants and the exodus from Moscow, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow is set entirely within the walls of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow’s Theatre Square.
But there is something distinctly Tolstoyian in our hero, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, charming and urbane, surely a descendant of the more famous Rostovs. He is sent into house arrest by the Bolsheviks and goes willingly, considering the alternative, and for 30 years from 1922 is imprisoned in the hotel, first as an honoured guest and later as a respected waiter. We almost see this as a promotion, so conditioned are we by then to look on the positive side of life.
Rostov witnesses the momentous changes in Russia, not Tolstoy-style through the debate of powerful men and the clash on the battlefields, but in the detail of everyday life in the hotel as he quietly observes the changing guests and procedures. We are left to imagine the mentality of the new regime’s leaders who remove the labels from every bottle in the famous wine cellar so comrades receive a egalitarian pot-luck bottle with each meal. Rostov, connoisseur and master of the wine-food match, merely serves the first bottle that comes to hand.
The backing cast of the story are the workers of the Metropol who are trained for service, impeccably courteous front-of-house and a pack of real characters behind the scenes. Rostov is Rostov, his beautiful manners translate from his aristocratic youth to service without missing a beat.
There are three main women who come into Rostov’s life, each in a different context, and he is loyal, generous and playful in his love for each in a very Rostovian way. The women all have beating hearts.
He’s a lovely man. It’s an elegantly written book. Glib? Yes, perhaps. Open the book in the middle and read a few pages to see if the voice is for you. But don’t be fooled, under the light tone, we are still in 1930’s Russia. Towles gives a menacing feel for the era, without much “proper” history at all. And the end is sublime.
I finished it and immediately recommended it to friends, particularly, but not exclusively, to those who have re-watched the BBC War & Peace series over and over and can’t quite get enough.
And if you still can’t get enough, Amor Towles writes a Q&A on A Gentleman of Moscow on his website, well worth a read to pick up some little details you may have missed.