The Count Of Hotel Metropol:
If a book remains on the bestseller charts for so long, it demands to be read. And after completing Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow in record time, one can say that its popularity is justified. No surprise that a screen version is on the way, with Kenneth Branagh cast as the protagonist, a Russian aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov.
Towles captures a turbulent and violent period of Russian history, but his tone is miraculously light, imbued with humour, romance and intrigue. Whatever may be happening outside its walls before, during, and after the Russian Revolution, the Hotel Metropol in Moscow remains an oasis of exemplary professionalism, luxury and hospitality.
Rostov narrowly escapes execution during the Revolution, thanks to a fiery poem he supposedly wrote; instead he is sentenced—quite implausibly– by a Bolshevik tribunal, to permanent house arrest in the hotel. Evicted from his plush suite, he is confined to a tiny servants’ room in the attic. The count, who grew up in a huge mansion on his family’s estate, travelled widely, stayed and dined at the finest establishments, adjusts to his reduced circumstances with remarkable resilience. The man who was a patron of the Metropol’s fine-dine restaurant, the Boyarsky, gets employed there as a head waiter. Because he is a man of charm, erudition, generosity and wit, he commands the friendship and loyalty of the hotel’s staff, including the temperamental head chef, the maitre d’ hotel, the barber, the concierge, the wise seamstress and the handyman– all of whom play important parts in the count’s extraordinary life.
The outside world comes to the count in the form of his old friend Mishka, a Red Army Colonel, Osip Ivanovich, a glamorous actress, Anna Urbanova (who becomes his occasional lover), Richard Vanderwhile, the aide-de-camp of an American General, and a precocious brat, Nina Kulikova, who selects the count as her dining companion and playmate, and shows him the bowels of the hotel, where the real work is done, by simply stealing a master key.
Years after she leaves the hotel with her bureaucrat father, she turns up suddenly with her eight-year-old daughter, Sofia, and begs that the count look after the chlld for a few weeks, while she accompanies her husband, who has been exiled to Siberia. She never returns, and, after the initial disruption of his routine, the now 49-year-old count starts looking upon the very intelligent and serious little girl as the daughter he never had.
While there is famine, destruction, mass murder outside, the count and his friend in the hotel live comfortably; if he misses his freedom, he never mentions it again after a single emotional outburst– he simply accepts life as a “Former Person.” Except for the nastiness of one Bolshevik villain, he and Sofia only receive love, kindness and loyalty from everyone they come across. Sofia grows up to be a musical prodigy, which leads to a major turning point in the story.
Spanning four decades, the novel could perhaps be accused of glossing over the monumental tragedy of Soviet Russia and looking at the Revolution from the point of view of an aristocrat, who does not really suffer, but it is wonderfully written (the overwritten bits and some syrupy cuteness can be overlooked), with a cast of colourful characters and a deep compassion at its core.
A Gentleman in Moscow
By Amor Towles