‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ blends ‘Downton Abbey’ and Russian existentialism

The domes in Moscow’s Red Square may not remind you of Russian existentialism, but Amor Towles’ new novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” just might.
The domes in Moscow’s Red Square may not remind you of Russian existentialism, but Amor Towles’ new novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” just might. Bloomberg News

At first glance, the premise of Amor Towles’ second novel (after 2011’s “Rules of Civility”) sounds bleak: A man sentenced to house arrest for 30-plus years in the early days of the Soviet Union.

But “A Gentleman in Moscow” proves itself to be, rather, a highly engaging mosaic of a life, populated by colorful characters enduring the changing tides of history.

Imagine, if you will, a cocktail: Take the nostalgia and whimsy of Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” the decorum of “Downton Abbey,” add a splash of the 19th-century comedies of manners (Dickens, Thackeray, et al.) and a twist of Russian existentialism, and you’ll arrive at something like this book.

In 1922, the state declares Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov a “Former Person,” and sentences him to house arrest in the ritzy Hotel Metropol near Moscow’s Red Square. A lesser man would spend his days moaning about the lost world of his privileged youth; the Count instead accepts his fate with cheerful resignation.

He decorates his small quarters with a few pieces saved from his family’s country estate, supplemented with spare furniture from the hotel attic. He goes to work at the hotel’s top restaurant and forms a lifelong partnership with Andrey, the French circus performer-turned-maitre d’, and Emile, the ingeniously resourceful chef.

Together the “Triumvirate” passes the middle decades of the 20th century providing unparalleled service to the many foreign correspondents, actresses and politicians who grace their establishment.

He befriends a young girl, Nina, who introduces him to the world of servants’ staircases, basement storerooms and balconies from which to eavesdrop on Soviet committee meetings. His acquaintance with Nina later sets up the defining moment of his life.

Like its hero, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is neither stuffy nor self-important. It appreciates the finer things in life and knows how to make a little go a long way when they’re in short supply. It contains love, both romantic and parental. It supplies intrigue, in the service of both the interests of geopolitics and a really good bowl of soup.

There are so many ways a book like this could go wrong, but Towles pulls it all off — including authorial footnotes in the voice of a historian-cum-Russian-novelist — without a misstep.

If the story finds itself wrapping up rather neatly at the end (with a flourish to that American classic “Casablanca” to boot), this is by design. Towles has arranged the novel in an accordion-like structure, expanding outward in scope and timeline toward the middle, then contracting back to a single thread at the end.

The reason all of this works is the pitch-perfect tenor of his voice. Towles’ prose is clear and elegant; its tone walks the delicate balance between mannered and engaging. Almost any page could be drafted to provide an example: “One evening in late December, as he was walking the hallway to the Piazza, the Count distinctly felt a gust of frozen air, despite being fifty yards from the nearest exit to the street. It brushed past him with all the freshness and clarity of a starlit winter’s night.”

Faced with the slowness of the long, monotonous days laid out before him, Rostov becomes “by necessity…a master of the digression, the parenthetic remark, the footnote” in order to pass the time.

One might say the same for the book. Flitting from memories of youth to Russia’s contributions to the world (as enumerated by the Count: vodka, Tolstoy and Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, caviar), to petty gossip about one’s peers, each time one picks the novel up, it’s like resuming a conversation with an old friend.

“A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles (480 pages; Viking; $27)