By Amor Towles, Penguin Books, September 6, 2016, 0143110438
A Gentleman in Moscow was particularly interesting during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The main character, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is under house arrest for many decades. He’s unable to leave the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, which makes for an interesting and mundane story. It’s easy to forgot that he’s unable to set foot outside the hotel, just like we are trapped at home today.
The many themes in the book make for a very enjoyable story. It starts off slowly, but there’s a lot to explain. There’s a man struggling with his change in status: from count to criminal. The classless society he is thrown into is not really classless. It’s a bit of what you might expect, but then there are many surprises.
[k434] But every period has its virtues, even a time of turmoil…
When Emile Zhukovsky was lured to the Metropol as chef de cuisine in 1912, he was given command of a seasoned staff and a sizable kitchen. In addition, he had the most celebrated larder east of Vienna. On his spice shelves was a compendium of the world’s predilections and in his cooler a comprehensive survey of birds and beasts hanging from hooks by their feet. As such, one might naturally leap to the conclusion that 1912 had been a perfect year in which to measure the chef’s talents. But in a period of abundance any half-wit with a spoon can please a palate. To truly test a chef’s ingenuity, one must instead look to a period of want. And what provides want better than war?
[k749] In Russia, whatever the endeavor, if the setting is glorious and the tenor grandiose, it will have its adherents. In fact, over the years, as the locations for duels became more picturesque and the pistols more finely manufactured, the best-bred men proved willing to defend their honor over lesser and lesser offenses. So while dueling may have begun as a response to high crimes–to treachery, treason, and adultery–by 1900 it had tiptoed down the stairs of reason, until they were being fought over the tilt of a hat, the duration of a glance, or the placement of a comma.
[k857] With so little to do and all the time in the world to do it, the Count’s peace of mind continued to be threatened by a sense of ennui–that dreaded mire of the human emotions.
[k1185] “It is the business of the times to change, Mr. Halecki. And it is the business of gentlemen to change with them.”
[k1824] By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration–and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.
[k2194] Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself.
[k3257] Admittedly, when the Count had first encountered jazz, he hadn’t much of an affinity for it. He had been raised to appreciate music of sentiment and nuance, music that rewarded patience and attention with crescendos and diminuendos, allegros and adagios artfully arranged over four whole movements–not a fistful of notes crammed higgledy-piggledy into thirty measures. And yet . . . And yet, the art form had grown on him.
[k5263] Why, many Western observers wondered, would over a million citizens stand in line to see the corpse of a tyrant? The flippant said it must have been to ensure that he was actually dead; but such a remark did not do justice to the men and women who waited and wept.