In the end, I loved this book. But for the first 200+ pages I had no idea where it was going. Unlike traditional 19th and 20th Century novels, there was no clear through-line from page 1, no ‘meet our hero who wants this but can’t have it because….’ Instead, we encounter a cast of quirky characters, chief of whom is Count Alexander Rostov, a ‘former person’ (according to the post-Revolutionary Bolshevik regime) sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Metropol, a posh Moscow hotel and icon of a bygone age.
Ok, let me see if I can summarize things a bit (I’ll give a spoiler alert if I reveal anything you might not want to know until you finish the novel). We meet the Count on the day of his sentencing, whereupon he is removed from his longstanding hotel room (#317), a spacious, elegant apartment overlooking central Moscow. Much to his surprise, he returns from court to find his belongings (those few he can keep) on their way to the sixth floor, a venue formerly used to house servants of wealthy hotel clients. The only things he can fit in his new room are his grandmother’s coffee table, his desk, and a bed. Oh, my. But he’s not deflated. Instead, he gradually adapts to his change in circumstance, slowly morphing from a privileged member of the Russian aristocracy to a hotel employee, specifically maître d’ of the Boyarsky, the hotel’s upscale restaurant. Here the former Count puts his innate ability to seat dinner guests in the most advantageous way–a skill discovered at his grandmother’s lavish dinner parties–to good use. The effete count, in other words, becomes a laborer. But he’s fine with that. Likewise, his former service providers—Emile, the chef, as well as other hotel managers and clerks (including the hotel seamstress), become his colleagues. And he makes all of these changes with aplomb, showing no difference in his treatment of or affection for said persons from his former days. Which marks Alexander–Sasha–as a wonderful main character, immune, in a way, from the class issues that precipitated the Russian Revolution. One thing he retains from his aristocratic past, though—besides his impeccable manners and refined sensibility—is a large stash of gold coins engraved with Catherine the Great’s image. Worth a fortune, they are hidden in the legs of his antique desk, and surface at key points in the novel. They are, if you will, one of the novel’s recurring symbols, and play an important role in the novel’s conclusion.
Aside from Alexander’s friends-cum-colleagues, he interacts with a few others, the first of which is Nina, a young, free-spirited girl dressed in idiosyncratic yellow (which sets her apart from everyone else, and is therefore indicative of the old order) who runs around the hotel eavesdropping on clientele, including Soviet officials. She also has a master key to all of the hotel’s rooms, which plays a significant role in future events. Although we have no idea what this future entails, we enjoy Alexander and Nina’s frivolous adventures, along with their camaraderie, dinner dates, etc.
So… so far we have a charming novel about an eccentric group of characters who live and work in a prestigious hotel, reminiscent of books and movies like The Bridge Over San Luis Rey, The Grand Hotel, Murder on the Orient Express, etc., wherein a seemingly unrelated group of people wind up having something crucial in common. And that is all that kept me going with the novel until page 200 or so when I started to put 2 + 2 together and realized I was witnessing the gradual transformation of Russian society from pre-Revolutionary privilege to post-Revolutionary communism–and back again. Because, sadly, the new regime fails to fulfill its idealistic Marxist promise and becomes more and more like its predecessor, reverting to the same kind of hierarchical structures inherent in old-world Russian politics.
What I’ve decided, then, is this book is about is the failure of communism, the irony of an ostensibly egalitarian system becoming as stratified as the czarist system it was meant to replace. A light-hearted meditation on the human condition (on human frailty as well as true humanitarianism, because Alexander Rostov is nothing if not an exceptional human being), A Gentleman in Moscow is harder to decode than Rules of Civility, but is a masterwork of irony nonetheless that succeeds in delivering serious content while at the same time entertaining us.
In sum, A Gentleman in Moscow is one of those books less about story than about plot. Luckily, its characters don’t suffer for it, because, typically, in clever books–ie, books more about ideas than emotions–the characters suffer because they are first and foremost pieces of a puzzle, emblematic more than idiosyncratic. And A Gentleman in Moscow is a puzzle of old new vs. old, of the new order seeming to supplant the old, but, in the end, just replacing it, becoming it.
In a word, what goes around comes around in this novel. Thus (SPOILER ALERT) in contrast to the devolution of the communist ideal, Count Alexander, his paramour, Anna, a haughty Russian actress who finds herself on a progressively lower social stratum–and Nina gradually become their better selves as the novel progresses. Nina becomes her purposeful and talented daughter, Sophia; the Count becomes a commoner; his longtime friend, Mikail Fyoderonch—aka Mishka—former idealist, revolutionary and poet (it is he, after all, who writes the poem favored by the new regime calling for a new order, a new world—a poem that ironically saves Alexander’s life, because the Party thinks he wrote it and therefore is an early Communist sympathizer) ends up defeated, disillusioned, dead; and Anna becomes the new Helena, Alexander’s beloved sister.
A redeeming novel in the end, A Gentleman in Moscow is a portrait of the human condition. Communism fails, but these several characters–who represent the core of humanity–survive, grow and, in the end, escape to a better world, just as do their confreres Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, which Towles so masterfully references and celebrates at the novel’s close.