In 1922, at the age of 33, the urbane Count Rostov is exiled by the People’s Comissariat for Internal Affairs to the Hotel Metropol, Moscow for life upon pain of death. He is spared immediate execution only because he is known as the author of a poem in praise of the pre-revolutionary cause:-
“Alexander Ilyich Rostov, taking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is It Now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused.”
Rather unlikely, you say. Yes, as are the in-house adventures in which the Count engages over a number of years with the unchaperoned daughter of a Ukrainian bureaucrat. Nina approaches the Count’s table in the hotel dining room when she is nine-years old and blessed with a governess who should be sacked. Nina is a girl of preternatural coolness and curiosity. This sequence is most reminiscent of Salinger‘s “For Esme – with Love and Squalor“. The difference is that the Count and Nina remain friends, meeting when Nina is resident at the hotel, the two of them running wild upstairs and downstairs, breaking into suites, investigating the cellars, setting geese free, that sort of thing.
The generally unruffled Count is offended by the decline in the standards of the Metropol resulting from the war and Bolshevism:
“Today, the dining room was nearly empty and the Count was being served by someone who appeared not only new to the Piazza, but new to the art of waiting. Tall and thin, with a narrow head and superior demeanor, he looked rather like a bishop that had been plucked from a chessboard. When the Count took his seat with a newspaper in hand – the international symbol of dining alone – the chap didn’t bother to clear the second setting; when the Count closed his menu and placed it beside his plate – the international symbol of readiness to order – the chap needed to be beckoned with a wave of the hand; and when the Count ordered the okroshka and filet of sole, the chap asked if he might like a glass of Sauterne. A perfect suggestion, no doubt, if only the Count had ordered foie gras!
‘Perhaps a bottle of the Château de Baudelaire,’ the Count corrected politely.
‘Of course,’ the Bishop replied with an ecclesiastical smile.”
The Count (who is suffered to retain his title but not the honorific “Your Excellency”) acquires the Master Key to the Metropol from Nina – yes, unlikely, we agree. And so, even when she is not present, he is free to roam the hotel at will. The intricacies of his life in the hotel as honoured guest, then insouciant captive and finally, expert waiter are entertainingly described in clear and uncluttered prose.
The novel was a best-seller. Such is its readership’s interest in the elegant suites, the servant’s room with hidden study in which the Count lives for decades, the Shalyapin bar, the Boyarsky restaurant, the behind-the-scenes rooms and even the stairs of the Metropol that the hotel now offers ‘Gentleman in Moscow’ packages, advertised on its website as follows:-
“The Metropol invites its guests to follow the footsteps of Count Rostov, the main character of the Gentleman in Moscow novel by the American writer Amor Towles…Feel yourself in the middle of the novel by staying in one of the Metropol rooms.The offer includes: accommodation in a room of the chosen category…” (“Of the chosen category” – thank goodness that Russia has been cleansed of the corruptions of class.)
The set pieces – the Count’s liaison with a ‘willowy’ actress, meetings with his friend Mikhail Fyodorovich Mindich, sessions tutoring a party official and chance meetings with foreign hotel guests, allow Towles to digress on aspects of Soviet politics and repression.
It would be giving too much away to mention a special (and unlikely) relationship which changes the Count’s life, or to hint at the skillful manner in which Chekov’s guns all come together at the end, providing a satisfying surprise or two. This is a witty and elegant novel, flawed but so are all fairy tales.