Thursday, 5 December 2019

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles



It has taken me quite some time to write this post. Mainly, because I am about to make a very bold statement. This is the best book I have ever read! Yes, that is indeed a bold statement, but I have considered it for some time, and it feels good to say it. It is difficult to write about everything that crosses your mind while reading this book, mainly since I don't want to give away spoilers.
"In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery. 
Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose." (Summary from Penguin Random House)
In the beginning of the book I was thinking: "How can you write a whole book about someone in house arrest, in a small room, in a hotel?" What can really happen? Obviously, a lot of things.

A gentleman is "a chivalrous, courteous, or honourable man" according to Wikipedia. Count Rostov definitely applies to this characterisation. He is a charming man of the world, with a pragmatic attitude, which probably helps him live his life under extra ordinary circumstances. Nothing seems too complicated for him to grasp and deal with. He has his ups and downs, that is true, but he has a positive outlook on life, which helps keep him sane.
“if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” 
― Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
As we follow his life in the hotel, the world around him is changing. The story starts in 1922 and continues thirty years into the future. It is a terrifying time in the Sovjet Union under Stalin's reign.  Amor Towles' story is nothing but genius. The small world inside the hotel, reflects what is happening in the outside world. All the terrible things, the hunger, the terror and the changing of society, effects him as concerns his friends, but in a way, he is all saved from the madness of the world. Even if the outer world and its changes are also visible in the hotel. Rules change, new employees and new kind of hotel guests.
“At the center of all that is Russia - of its culture, its psychology, and, perhaps, its destiny - stands the Kremlin, a walled fortress a thousand years old and four hundred miles from the sea. Physically speaking, its walls are no longer high enough to fend off attack, and yet, they still cast a shadow across the entire country.”
― Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
Through Count Rostov we meet people frequenting or working in the hotel. Some become his life long friends and some temporary acquaintances. He is a well known and liked character in the hotel, part of the decorations or, if you want to see it like that, a remnant of what once was. Through the story, the Count reflects on times passing by, anonymity and invisibility, regret and heartache, the past och future.
"Every year that passed, it seemed a little more of her had slipped away; and I began to fear that one day I would come to forget her altogether. But the truth is: No matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely.”― Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
It is an amazing story that captures your heart. It reflects on life, politics and a changing world, and how we can live in it. Do we have to adapt, or can we live the life we want? What if your life is suddenly totally changed by a revolution and new political agendas? How are we able to adapt, even if we don't want to? What about the past, the present and the future? Usually, it is a gradual change.
“As we age, we are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade. We are familiar with the songs our grandparents favored, after all, even though we never danced to them ourselves. At festive holidays, the recipes we pull from the drawer are routinely decades old, and in some cases even written in the hand of a relative long since dead. And the objects in our homes? The oriental coffee tables and well-worn desks that have been handed down from generation to generation? Despite being “out of fashion,” not only do they add beauty to our daily lives, they lend material credibility to our presumption that the passing of an era will be glacial”― Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
The story has so many layers. It is both political and personal, and digs dip into the human mind. How do we live our life, and what do we make of it? Count Rostov manages to adapt to circumstances, and live a fulfilled life. I have only touched on a fragment of what is happening in this novel. There is so much more to enjoy. While nearing the end of the book, one can't help wondering; how will it all end? I can only say it is a surprisingly, perfect ending. As you, as a reader, have become an acquaintance of Count Rostov, it only makes sense. He follows his own motto; “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” A perfect ending to an absolutely, wonderful, perfect novel.

It seems Kenneth Branagh has bought the rights to make a film of the book, and he will star as Count Rostov. Although, I don't imagine Count Rostov looking anything like Kenneth Branagh, I am sure he can make the character full justice. Can't wait to see his interpretation of the book.

I did read it in Swedish, but will buy the English version, re-read it, slowly, slowly, and enjoy the story all over again.