Almost as satisfying as a ‘big house’ novel is a ‘big hotel’ novel, and we find one here in Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was arrested on account of his noble background, complete with country estates, duels, troikas and sleighs. Normally such a man would be executed, but because of a revolutionary poem attributed to him, he was instead sentenced to house arrest at his residence at the Hotel Metropole, in the centre of Moscow.
He was rather unceremoniously bumped from his luxurious third-floor suite to a small room on the sixth floor in a scene reminiscent of Sara Crewe’s sudden change of circumstances in A Little Princess (a childhood favourite of mine). In what had become a series of scaling-downs, he chose his favourite pieces of furniture, personal luggage and books to shift upstairs with him, only to find himself suffocating in his own belongings until he discovered a hidden disused room which he could turn into a study. That was not all he discovered. Through his acquaintance with Nina, a young girl who often stayed at the Metropole, he became familiar with the hallways and basement rooms of the hotel, accessed through a small master key that Nina had somehow procured. Nina grew up, while Alexander stayed confined within the hotel, passing the days through a routine of frequenting, eating and drinking at the various restaurants and services provided through the hotel – the seamstress, the barber, the bar, the concierge’s desk. When Nina returned as an adult, with her small daughter Sofia in tow, she begged Alexander to look after the child while she followed her husband to Siberia, where he had been exiled. Of course, she did not return and Alexander, as a middle aged single man, became Sofia’s surrogate father as she joined him in his exile in the centre of Moscow.
The narrative unfolds chronologically, and the history of twentieth-century Russia is a background hum as Stalin accrues more power, famine ravages the country, World War ensues and then Russia and America settle into Cold War hostility. These events of course have an effect on the hotel, as informants are planted within the staff and individual fortunes rise and fall, but it is a muted effect. The hotel had been a luxury destination prior to the Revolution, and as new men find themselves moving into positions of power and influence, they are happy to avail themselves of the faded splendour of the hotel, just as the powerful, but now fallen, men had done before them.
Alexander remained remarkably tranquil in the face of these very reduced circumstances. He still had access to money, and the breadth of mind that a wealthy and cultured background had brought him, and so his life continued on much as it had before, except within the walls of the hotel. The staff of the hotel remained much the same as well. Alexander himself became one of the staff although the deference remained. Montaigne’s essays were a bulky nuisance in his small rooms, but he seems to imbibe a sense of equanimity from them that allows him to float above the changes occurring outside.
The book is told in the voice of an observant, dry omniscient third-person narrator. I found myself laughing out loud in places, and the book is suffused with a 19th-century sepia, redolent of wax and cigar smoke. I enjoyed it very much, and when the pace picked up considerably at the end, I felt satisfied that the author had created a self-contained, almost fairy-tale world of basically good people where good is rewarded in the end.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: purchased e-book.