A Trip to 1920s Russia with Amor Towles
In the vast realms of literature Amor Towles has established himself as a very profound and emotionally-charged writer with the ability to create characters that remain memorable for evermore, as he did with Katey and Evie for example in Rules of Civility. He certainly seems to have a preference for the first half of the twentieth century, a time that has become criminally overlooked and understudied since it all got eclipsed by the Second World War and the international political strife which followed for decades after.
In his latest work, A Gentleman in Moscow, the author takes us into a time and place that generally only warrants some footnotes in Western history books: 1920s Russia. With the October Revolution having just taken place the country is in a state of great turmoil and reconstruction, with much of the aristocracy finding itself imprisoned, exiled or executed.
More precisely, the author introduces us to Count Alexander Rostov, and in 1922 he had the misfortune of being convicted to indefinite house arrest in the attic of a grand hotel. The Count is an intelligent and educated man who, by virtue of his status, never had to work a single day in his life, nor spend a minute in discomfort or squalor.
Now, he is faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a room, locked away from a country standing at a most critical point in its history. No longer having anything or anyone, Alexander slowly becomes more or less accustomed to his situation, and after a while, he begins to see it as perhaps the most surprisingly beneficial and educative stage of his life.
A Time Worth Remembering
Before looking at the actual content of the story, the plot, the characters and everything that follows, I would first like to bring your attention to Towles’ obvious historical acumen. He never misses a beat in describing the state of the country and shows a solid understanding of the political, economic and social climate that reigned during those years.
His stories are always a study of the human soul as much as they are an exploration of a specific time period, and with this particular one I feel like he outdid himself. He simply showers you with so much knowledge as well as curious details that I would argue A Gentleman in Moscow offers greater insight into 1920s Russia than most North American history textbooks.
With that being said though, I firmly guarantee that in the end, this is still a novel and not a history book. Towles is quite able at differentiating between necessary, unnecessary, and interesting facts. He tells us what we need to understand the thoughts and actions of the characters while including captivating little tidbits you’d be hard-pressed to learn on your own. He carefully omits boring data and unnecessary data from this story, and as a result even the segments which don’t bring progress to the plot are still read with great interest.
A Never-Ending Journey to Enlightenment
To move onwards in our exploration of this novel let us examine the characters. As you can well imagine, seeing as how our protagonist is basically locked in a room the story is driven by characters rather than a concrete and linear plot.
As far as the Count goes he is definitely a man of great complexity who deserves to be studied and dissected in great detail. His thoughts are always clear and revealing in some way, whether they shed light on his nature, his thoughts of the world around him, his interpretation of his predicament, and so on and so forth; there is nary a moment when we would prefer for the Count to keep his mouth closed.
His peculiar travels down a surprising road are also fascinating to watch because we really see him develop as a human being and grow in terms of spirituality and understanding. It all happens in a very believable and realistic way, with all of his personal progress coming bit by bit, usually after some struggles.
As for the rest of the characters, if you like a diverse, entertaining, buoyant and stimulating cast then you’ll be in for a real treat here. It feels like the Count has been cursed (or perhaps blessed?) with an inability to meet normal people.
Pretty much all of the other people we meet are intriguing and peculiar in their own unique ways; nearly each one is the kind of person you would describe in real life as a “real character…” to stay in the land of polite euphemisms.
However, none of them are ever annoying or unpleasant to the point where we would wish great harm to them. Even the less wholesome characters end up growing on you, and by the time you finish the book you’re likely going to miss a bunch of them.
The story itself is an unexpectedly-wild ride with a healthy mix of philosophy and adventure. You’ll be drowning in intrigue up until your ears; there are gold coins, secret compartments, suspicious liquids, covert operations, stolen passports, invaluable jewelry, mysterious letters, illegal duels, antique pistols, and that’s just for starters. It brings a very healthy dose of excitement to an already thought-provoking historical novel, and in my opinion elevates this book to the status of potential cult classic.
The Final Verdict
Amor Towles has once again demonstrated why he is considered to be amongst the greatest writers in modern times. A Gentleman in Moscow is about as close as you can get to writing the perfect historical-fiction novel.
It has plenty of accurate, educative and captivating information, an interesting protagonist with through-provoking reflections, an unforgettable and extremely diversified cast of characters, dramatic intrigue by the tons, and all of that brought together with impeccable style and finesse. If you are into historical novels and post-revolution Russia, then you simply owe it to yourself to read this book.
Amor Towles is an American writer who graduated from Yale College and received an M.A. in English from Stanford University. He worked as an investment professional in New York from 1991 to 2012 and is best-known for his works of fiction The Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow.