Reading is an important activity for a writer. Just as you become a stronger tennis player when you’re facing a crack shot across the court, you can become a stronger writer when you read great writers. In addition, reading a fabulous book is about as much fun you can have sitting still.
In word that was my experience of reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles this week.
I could also say that reading it was like eating the fluffiest of soufflés, but instead of it melting in my mouth I could actually sink my teeth into it. Double yum.
I know this book was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a year last year and it must have a gazillion reviews, but I haven’t read any of them and don’t want to.
First, here’s my take on the plot arc: A Gentleman in Moscow is a reverse Forrest Gump story. Forrest is a working-class simpleton who goes out into the world and unwittingly participates in – and sometimes unwittingly precipitates – the important events in American society from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
In contrast Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a well-bred aristocrat with an exquisite intelligence who lives under house arrest in the best hotel in Moscow, and it is through the people who come into the hotel that he experiences, reflects on and adapts to the important events in Russian/Soviet society from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
Of course, everything else about the two stories is completely different, with Gentlemen a tour-de-force of erudition, insight, sophistication and humor.
The event leading to his house arrest in 1922 is his writing of a poem, considered seditious by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, who prosecutes him. To whet your appetite, this marvelous book opens with Rostov’s appearance before the commissariat:
Comrade Vyshinsky: Before we begin, I must say, I do not think that I have ever seen a jacket festooned with so many buttons.
Rostov: Thank you.
Vyshinsky: It was not meant as a compliment.
Rostov: In that case, I demand satisfaction on the field of honor.
A perfect juxtaposition of Old World norms and the New World Order!
Rostov is witty and erudite, loves life and his fellow human beings. Most importantly he is unfailingly correct in word and deed. His life is a pleasure to follow, and the book is a literary treat. More I won’t say except: Read it!
The author is Amor Towles, who is obviously enormously well read. I got a good 95% but certainly not 100% of his literary references. Naturally, then, I chose this picture of him for its appropriate background.
He lives in New York City near Gramercy Park, a classy place.
After working in investments for over 20 years Towles turned to writing and published his first novel The Rules of Civility in 2011.
It’s set in New York in the year 1938, and this historic period is as carefully observed as Towles’s Gentleman, but the narrator, Katherine Kontent, of Rules is more serious, with none of the gentle humor of Count Rostov. Neither does Rules have the grandeur and sweep of Gentleman, but this comment is not a criticism, because you can’t criticize a book for not doing what it never intended.
After finishing Rules I read reviews of it. It is uniformly praised as a “love letter to New York” and for its literariness. I can only agree.
However it took me a good 10 – 15 pages to realize the first-person narrator was a woman, and I adjusted only when she referred to her husband. (I entertained then dismissed the idea that it was a gay couple, because the opening is set in 1966). I kept waiting to be convinced of her gender … and never quite was.
I have no problem with a male author creating a female narrator. Me, I love creating male characters. So I was willing to be convinced, but when Katherine says of a fellow subway rider that “he looked like a past prime pitcher from the farm leagues” I couldn’t imagine any woman who didn’t know – or care – quite a bit about baseball coming up with the image – and nothing in the book suggested Katherine did.
It is not this image alone that made me question the narrator’s gender but rather all the missed opportunities to flesh out a feminine perspective and/or experience.
Still an enjoyable read.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen