Originally published at: https://blog.12min.com/a-gentleman-in-moscow-summary/
A NovelReady for a great unusual story?
How about an aristocratic fairytale from Soviet-era Moscow set in the Metropol Hotel and spanning more than three decades?
If so – join Amor Towles as he describes the extraordinarily meaningful life of “A Gentleman in Moscow.”
Who Should Read “A Gentleman in Moscow”? And Why?If you are interested in the history of the Soviet Union in the years between the Bolshevik coup and the death of Stalin, then you’ll undoubtedly enjoy “A Gentleman in Moscow.”
You’ll enjoy it even more if you want a skillfully written novel which, just like its main character, exudes with the long-forgotten artistic manners and sophistication of the European aristocracy.
Amor Towles BiographyAmor Towles is an American novelist, residing in Gramercy Park, Manhattan, New York City.
Born and raised in Boston, he received a BA from Yale and an MA in English from Stanford.
In 2011, he wrote “Rules of Civility” which became an instant bestseller. “A Gentleman in Moscow” was published five years later to the same critical and popular acclaim.
Find out more at http://www.amortowles.com/
1917–1922: The Bolshevik CoupAfter Lenin’s Bolshevik coup of 1917 and the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s gentry is suddenly faced with a cruel, but rather obvious choice: flee the country and leave everything behind or stay in Russia and pray not to be killed.
Unlike most of his relatives, the titular character of Amor Towles’ novel “A Gentleman in Moscow,” Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, chooses the latter, moving into the Metropol Hotel soon after the beginning of the Revolution.
1922: The Sentence of Count Alexander Ilyich RostovHowever, as one may expect, as the subsequent Civil War is nearing to its end, on June 21, 1922, the Count is identified, caught, and speedily tried.
Writing a revolutionary poem a decade ago.
If you’re having troubles to swallow that as a crime, think of the reasons Plato gives while cruelly banishing the poets from his ideal City-State; or, better yet, think of Osip Mandelstam, a magnificent Russian poet, who suffered a similar destiny because of this poem for Stalin.
Anyway – back to our book.
The Count’s sentence is, fortunately, somewhat mild compared to the usual punishments dealt at that time of chaos. Namely, he is sentenced to a life of house arrest in the Metropol Hotel.
Considering the stellar reputation of the Metropol Hotel (the largest and most luxurious hotel before the Revolution) and adding to it the fact that the hotel is the very place where the Count has lived for the previous four years, one is right to suppose that he may have gotten away unscathed from this one.
However, when the Count returns to his room, he finds out that almost everything he owns has been confiscated and that he has now been moved from his luxurious Suite 317 on the third floor to the attic, i.e., a single room on the sixth floor of the Hotel.
1923: Nina, Mishka and AnnaNaturally, the Count finds it difficult to cope with his new life. He spends most of his days reading, dining and drinking, “threatened by a sense of ennui — that dreaded mire of the human emotions.”
Fortunately, after some time, he befriends Nina Kulinova, a nine-year-old girl obsessed with everything princess-related.
So, the Count alleviates his boredom by either explaining to her the rules of aristocracy or exploring the hotel with her; the latter is made even more interesting in view of the fact that Nina has acquired a passkey and is constantly able to show to the Count some hidden rooms and passageways.
Eventually, on Christmas, she gives him the passkey as a gift.
A year passes, and the Count is visited by Mikhail Fyodorovich Mindich – or Mishka for short – a somewhat underprivileged poet, but his best friend as well, ever since the Count rushed to help Mishka in a schoolyard fight.
Just as many other poets of the day, Mishka feels all the enthusiasm in the world for Communism: it is the promise not only of a utopian future but also of entirely new art!
That very same day in 1923, the Count also meets Anna Urbanova, a film actress at the height of her fame. Even though she initially makes a poor impression on the Count, later that night, she invites him to her suite and seduces him.
In other words, a great moment for us to familiarize you to the style of Towles with an eloquent quote on first impressions:
After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. 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.
1923-1926: The Suicide AttemptYears pass, but the Count’s ennui doesn’t. His inability to understand the world around him causes this boredom to deteriorate to a state of utter depression. And even that is exacerbated by what’s happening at the Metropol Hotel in the years following the Civil War.
And this can be illustrated best in a character the Count sarcastically refers to as The Bishop. He is an incompetent individual who quickly rises through the ranks exclusively because he is a Bolshevik.
First, he is a waiter at the Piazza (the Hotel’s less elegant restaurant) than a supervisor at the Boyarsky (the Hotel’s premium restaurant) and, by the end of the book, the hotel manager himself!
In an attempt to introduce equality where none is needed, the Bishop files a complaint to have the wine labels removed and make all wines either red or white.
Since, as an aristocrat, the Count has prided in his knowledge of excellent wines, he interprets this as the final attack and deciding attack on his worldview and way of life.
So, in 1926, on the tenth anniversary of the death of his sister Helena, he decides to kill himself by jumping of the hotel roof. He is stopped by a guy named Abram, a handyman and amateur beekeeper. Abram – who comes from the same province as the Count – offers Alexander Ilyich Rostov some honey.
The honey has a distinct apple taste, and this evokes in the Count memories of his childhood which prevent him from killing himself.
“if a man does not master his circumstances,” realizes the Count, “then he is bound to be mastered by them.”
And so, he decides to take control of his life by – get this! – taking a job at the Boyarsky restaurant as a waiter. Though he has never worked a day in his life, he is pretty sure that his knowledge of the dining rituals of the rich will help him excel.
And, unsurprisingly, they do.
The 1930s: The Unkind YearsEven though the Count manages to find some purpose while progressing through the ranks as a waiter, Russia is quickly losing its own.
The once-precocious little girl Nina is now a young Bolshevik aiding farm collectivization in the provinces. However, numerous peasants oppose the idea of collectivization and, as the government exiles them to Siberia, Nina starts wondering if Communism is actually able to deliver on its promises.
Mishka shares the same doubts as he battles daily against the Party’s censorship practices, all the while convincing himself that Russia’s great contribution to the world is destruction. “For as a people,” he notes, “we Russians have proven unusually adept at destroying that which we have created.”
Our churches, known the world over for their idiosyncratic beauty, for their brightly colored spires and improbable cupolas, we raze one by one. We topple the statues of old heroes and strip their names from the streets, as if they had been figments of our imagination. Our poets we either silence, or wait patiently for them to silence themselves.From time to time, Anna Urbanova – once again famous, but now mainly playing roles of working-class heroines – visits the Metropol and she and the Count rekindle their romance.
Still working at the Boyarsky restaurant, the Count has a new job as well: to tutor Osip, an officer of the Party, in French and English language and culture.
1938: Nina’s Return and Mishka’s BanishmentAnd then the inevitable happens.
A year before the outbreak of the Second World War, Nina makes a brief appearance at the Metropol. Now a 25-year old girl, Nina also has a five-year-old daughter, named Sofia.
She explains to the Count that her husband has been arrested and sent to Siberia and asks him to watch over Sofia for a couple of months.
The Count agrees, and Nina leaves.
She never returns, though.
Meanwhile, Mishka does the unthinkable: he has an outburst against censorship and his editor Shalamov after the latter one asks him to cut out a passage from Chekhov’s letters in which the great Russian writer praises German bread.
And just like Nina’s husband, he too is sent to Siberia.
1946-1950: Sofia’s Injury and Mishka’s DeathSofia is a thirteen-year-old girl when the Great World War ends.
During a game she regularly plays with the Count, she falls on the stairs and hurts her head. The Count – despite violating his parole – rushes Sofia to the hospital where she is quickly operated on.
Fortunately, the surgery goes fine, and Sofia recovers. The Count also manages to escape further punishment: Osip smuggles him back to the hotel.
In 1950, the Count is visited by Katerina, the long-time lover of his friend Mishka. She informs him that Mishka has died and gives him his last work: a collection of quotations about bread from famous works of literature.
The Count reveals a secret to Katerina: the poem he was tried for was actually written by Mishka! The friends decided to publish it under the Count’s name, because, at worst, he risked imprisonment.
Ironically, the Count realizes, the poem had saved his life, because, if not for its revolutionary undertones, the Bolsheviks would have certainly killed him as an aristocrat representative of the former regime.
A Gentleman in Moscow EpilogueIt’s 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death) and Sofia – who has grown into both a beautiful young woman and a talented pianist (taught by Viktor Stepanovich, the conductor of the hotel band – is invited on a tour to Paris.
The Count – who has planned this for a while – sees the tour as an excellent opportunity for him and Sofia to escape the Soviet Union.
Thought through over the course of the next several months, his plan – which includes Italian clothes, Finnish passport, American hat and jacket, and a bottle of hair dye – is seemingly watertight.
Unfortunately, the Bishop (by now the manager of the Hotel) uncovers one of the Count’s maps and deduces what he plans to do.
However, just before he phones the authorities, the Count faces him with pistols in his hands and locks him in one of the storerooms. We learn that years earlier, while exploring the hotel with Nina’s passkey, he had discovered the pistols behind a wall panel in the office of the hotel manager.
On June 21, 1954, exactly 32 years after the Count had been sentenced to life in custody, Sofia performs at the Salle Pleyel.
After the show, she quickly cuts and dyes her hair, puts on the Italian clothes and rushes to the American embassy. There, a friend of the Bishop named Richard Vanderwhile helps her leave the Soviet Union and fly off to America.
At exactly midnight, following the Count’s request, Richard Vanderwhile organizes the simultaneous dialing of thirty different phones in the Metropol.
The Count uses the mayhem to put on the American hat and jacket and head, with a Finnish passport in his possession, straight to the train station.
However, there we find out that it’s all a ruse: he gives all three items to Stepanovich who boards the train to Helsinki in order to confuse the police.
As for the Count – well, he’s off to smell once again the apple orchards of his childhood. And to top things off, Anna Urbanova is waiting for him at a Nizhny Novgorod tavern.
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“A Gentleman in Moscow Summary Quotes”[bctt tweet="Fate would not have the reputation it has, if it simply did what it seemed it would do." username="get12min"]
[bctt tweet=“For as it turns out, one can revisit the past quite pleasantly, as long as one does so expecting nearly every aspect of it to have changed.” username=“get12min”]
[bctt tweet=“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence–one that was on intimate terms with a comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.” username=“get12min”]
[bctt tweet=“If patience wasn’t so easily tested, then it would hardly be a virtue.” username=“get12min”]
[bctt tweet=“For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.” username=“get12min”]
Our Critical ReviewIntriguing and eloquently written, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is a book – to quote Laura Freeman’s review from “The Times” (which, in turn, quotes Marie Kondo) – which “sparks joy.” There’s just too much human compassion here for you to ignore.
There’s also just too much refinement and elegance. “The book is like a salve,” writes PEN/Faulkner Award laureate, Ann Patchett. “I think the world feels disordered right now. The count’s refinement and genteel nature are exactly what we’re longing for.”
“How delightful that in an era as crude as ours this finely composed novel stretches out with old-World elegance,” agrees “The Washington Post.”