What would it be like to live in a hotel for a month, a year, decades. Not just any run of the mill hotel, but the best. The Bellevue in Philadelphia; Copley Plaza in Boston; The Plaza in New York City. Remember Eloise? Count Alexander Rostov shares his experience with us. For decades, under house arrest, he lived in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. “The Gentleman of Moscow,” by Amor Towles is a novel but reads as non fiction. You feel like you are in the Hotel with Count Rostov.
During the revolution Rostov was in Paris but he was determined to return to the motherland. In 1922 he is back but he is an aristocrat and is convicted of writing subversive poetry (ironically much later we learn the poem was written by a close friend). At the time of his arrest, the Count was occupying a large, elegant suite on the third floor of the Metropol, the finest hotel in the city. Instead of banishment to Siberia, the authorities decided a life confined to the hotel would be a suitable punishment for an unrepentent aristocratic, enemy of the people.
Sasha (as he is sometimes called, a nickname for Alexander) accepts the move to a sixth floor small, cramped attic room. He must leave behind many of the expensive personal furnishings in his suite but moves a family desk, a portrait of his sister Helena and a few other treasures. We will learn that the hollowed out legs of the desk are filled with gold coins.
The Count settles into a routine; a delivered breakfast; morning newspapers in the Lobby; meals in the Boyarsky (restaurant) or the more formal Piazza; drinks in the Shalyapin; reading while leaning back in his chair (he was a lover of books and brought many to his attic room); interactions with the staff, a fantastic ensemble of characters, an evening aperitif, usually just one. The life of a “gentleman.”
Two events alter his settled life. He discovers a door in a closet that leads to an adjacent room. He empties the room, there is a lot of storage in the attic, and creates a sitting room for himself, entry through the closet. When visitors show up he guides them through the closet into the sitting room. The second event is his meeting and eventual friendship with the precocious Nina Kulikova, a young girl who also lives in the hotel.
Nina had secured a pass key and guides the Count through the hotel. They hide in a balcony, watch and listen to party committee meetings. They visit the Count’s former suite, still furnished with his family heirlooms and there are the cellars, that area devoted to wine is of particular interest to the Count. They dine together and have all kinds of experiences.
The years pass, Stalin dies, who will take over? Towles provides just enough local color and history to root his story in Russia, the Revolution, later World War II and the Post War period. To keep busy and be purposeful, the Count becomes the hotel’s headwaiter. Nina grows up, leaves the hotel and becomes associated with the party. Traveling, she leaves her daughter, Sophia, in the Count’s care and the young girl, even more than her mother, becomes his constant companion and is often called his daughter. Like her mother, she is talented, clever, a delightful child.
Count Rostav becomes part of a Hotel Triumvirate with chef Emile and Andrey, the maitre d. They meet regularly to plan menus, seating arrangements and any other important restaurant matters. Ocassionally they must foil the attempts at control by the Bishop, a party functionary, appointed manager, who does not understand or believe in class. One on the Bishops first actions (to Rostov’s horror) is to strip all labels from wine bottles. Order white or red; no class pretensions. The “three” however resist his leveling, and in one conspiracy, collect ingredients (some difficult to obtain) and create a magnificent bouillabaisse which they share in a two hour euphoric meal.
There are many other characters and subplots in the 30 years the Count lives in the Metropol. There are hotel staff including Audrius, the bartender, Marina, the seamstress, and Victor Stepanovich Skadovsky, the orchestra conductor in the Piazza. All play a role in the Count’s life; most have long Russian names. Anna Urbanov, a former actress comes and goes and eventually becomes a lover. Mishka, an old friend visits and it’s revealed that he wrote the poem that was the immediate cause of the Count’s arrest and confinement. There are years of activity as Sophia grows into a young lady.
There is a climatic “happy” ending, references to “Casablanca,” Sophia on a concert tour in Paris, and Count Rostav escaping the confines of the Metropol. I recommend you get a copy of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” and read more for yourself.
Diane originally got the book for a discussion group. It’s not something I would typically read. But reading is my escape to different times and different places. I meet people not in my 2018, American, east coast orbit. “A Gentleman in Moscow” was all those things. Again, get a copy.