A Fairy Tale Set in the USSR

A Gentleman in Moscow
By Amor Towles
496 pp. Penguin Books. $18.

I’m endlessly fascinated by tales of people who successfully stepped out of time, who managed to remain blissfully unaware of the events going on in the wider world.

There was Christopher Knight, better known as the “North Pond Hermit” who, one day in 1986, decided to leave his home in Massachusetts and disappear in the forests of Maine where he remained, completely alone … until the outside world tracked him down in 2013 — 27 years later.

Then there’s Ernest Shackleton who set out from Plymouth on his third Antarctic expedition aboard the Endurance on August 8, 1914. The First World War had broken out only days earlier, but it was widely expected to be a quick affair. So when Shackleton and his crew came upon a whaling station two years later, in 1916, Shackleton reportedly asked the man there, “Tell me, when was the war over?”

“The war is not over,” he answered. “Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.”

Living under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel for a number of decades, starting in 1922, places our protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, in a similar sort of time warp in my mind. Yes, he might have copies of Pravda to read to keep himself abreast of the daily events in the wider world, but “Truth” in Soviet times covered what was a decidedly alternate reality.

I both read and listened to the audio version of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” the latter of which was superbly narrated and only enhanced the overall experience. This is the second book of Amor Towles that I’ve read, after his equally delightful Rules of Civility. Towles seems to American literature what the director Richard Linklater is to American cinema. Both men have a remarkable ability to capture nostalgia, to spin a wonderfully pleasant tale better than just about anyone alive today.

But “A Gentleman in Moscow” is, quite clearly, a tale. A fairy tale, even, because imagining that men like Lenin and Stalin would allow a man who was very much a part of Czarist Russia — a Count! — to live, otherwise unimpeded, in a hotel for decades while everyone else who bore the slightly resemblance to the old regime was hauled off to the Lubyanka and put up against the wall is no more fantastical than fairy creatures and Baba Yaga.

So if you go in expecting utter fidelity to the time and reputation of the Soviet regime, you are in for a far different experience. This is much more Czarist Russia in tone, a period that I have always been taken by. Of course the Czarist times were far from a free, happy era either, but compared to the brutal Bolshevist regime that followed, it has always felt lighter, rosier. At least to me.

“A Gentleman in Moscow” does nothing to dissuade me from that notion, as Count Alexander Rostov seems exactly the sort of person who should have some degree of power and influence in a truly utopian society. He is indeed a gentleman, a friend to all, and that we never feel truly anxious about his well being — despite his essentially being a privileged prisoner in an oppressive country in very dark times — is a testament to just how fantastical his story is. It’s an alternate history, light reading that romanticizes the past while only occasionally delving into the darkness taking place all around.

Towles’ Metropol Hotel, like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, feels inspired by the stories of Stefan Zweig. It harkens back to a simpler time, a charmed time, full of Austrian cafes, Hans Christian Andersen, and Goethe. Things worth cherishing, despite how purposefully reductive this reading may be.

So yes, it may be fantastical but it is fantastic or at least, almost so. The ending, to me, felt a bit rushed, like Towles’ suddenly became aware of the impending deadline to submit the manuscript. Maybe a bit too “Casablanca” for my liking.

We’ll always have Moscow? So long as it’s Towles’ Moscow rather than the real thing, but of course Towles’ Moscow is not a city at all, but rather the resplendent grounds of the Metropol Hotel.

Well worth checking into.

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