I try not to use the phrase “compulsively readable” too often, reserving this label for books that leave me at a loss to explain why they’re so compelling. Amor Towles’ debut offering, Rules of Civility, was such a book. A tale of dalliance, deception and upward mobility in the high-society social whirl of late-1930s New York City, the novel created such a vivid world that reading it felt like diving into virtual reality.
Towles’ second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, concerns a different type of outsider than Rules of Civility’s canny and ambitious Katey Kontent. Count Alexander Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, Master of the Hunt, is a man formally suspended in an obsolete era. At the beginning of the novel, it has been four and a half years since the Bolshevik Revolution swept away the old aristocracy of Tsarist Russia.
Called before an internal affairs tribunal, the Count confesses to having written a poem extolling the virtues of the old order. He is charged with having “succumbed to the corruptions of his class” and is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the same elegant Moscow hotel where he has occupied a palatial suite for four years—albeit in a much smaller room. Though it seems like a light sentence from a criminal justice system known for punishing dissidents with harsher forms of internal exile, the Count is assured: “Should you ever set foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot.”
Thus begins a surprisingly gentle story about the displacement of a feudal order and former ruling class in a communist revolution—certainly without the violence, upheaval and public humiliation portrayed in, say, Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba or Chen Kaige’s epic 1993 film Farewell My Concubine. A Gentleman in Moscow doesn’t stay quiet, but for much of the book, the world of the Hotel Metropol seems largely impervious to the dramatically changed landscape outside.
When he’s conscripted as head waiter at the Metropol’s opulent Boyarsky dining room, the Count’s new job plays to his existing strengths. His exquisite patrician manners provide him with the preternatural ability to anticipate both advantageous and potentially toxic dining partners—and to strategically arrange their table placement before conflicts emerge. Thus the Count survives both his house arrest and the eradication of his old way of life without anger or resentment. If anything, his twin roles as head waiter and secret consultant on European and American language and culture to a high-ranking Soviet apparatchik only reinforce his role as a cultivated man of leisure play, even in a society yoked to labor and collectivism.
Although the narrative never gets too bogged down in Soviet Russia’s political affairs, Towles occasionally lets history intrude on this story that spans three decades. Sometimes he does so in the main text, briefly chronicling, for example, the implementation of the First-Five-Year-Plan for industrializing and collectivizing the country in 1928. But A Gentleman in Moscow’s best didactic moments come in a handful of razor-sharp footnotes, reminiscent of the magnificent savaging of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in the footnotes to Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
But not all of the conflict in A Gentleman in Moscow is relegated to footnotes. During the decades he spends under house arrest at the Metropol, the Count enters into three relationships that complicate the otherwise-unchanging nature of his life at the hotel and his peculiar bargain with the Soviet state. The first is with a nine-year-old girl named Nina, who becomes both the Count’s playmate and frequent dinner companion during the early years of his imprisonment. Later, he begins an on-again, off-again affair with a willowy actress struggling to make the transition from silent movies to the more politicized films of the talkie era in the Soviet Union.
But the Count’s most significant relationship, which provides him renewed purpose and drives the action of the book’s final third, begins when he becomes the de facto father of Nina’s daughter Sofia. Years after her first childhood encounters with the Count, Nina returns in a state of distress and asks him to take care of her daughter as she leaves to search for her husband in a Sevvostlag labor camp in eastern Siberia.
As the years pass without Nina’s return, the Count’s patrician remove from the heat and sweat of everyday life evaporates, and with it goes the gentle, loping pace that Towles maintains for much of the book. As its stakes skyrocket, A Gentleman in Moscow engulfs the reader in the sort of page-turning, spellbinding frenzy of that most famous of all books about Counts, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
For most of A Gentleman in Moscow’s 400-plus pages, the last place I expected Towles to take me was into the heart-pumping realm of Dumas’ quintessential drama of escape and revenge. But what a thrill it was to get there.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.