Day 1125: A Gentleman in Moscow

Cover for A Gentleman in MoscowFor some time after I began reading A Gentleman in Moscow, I was bothered by the idea that I was reading Aftermath of the Russian Revolution Lite. Still, I enjoyed the novel and finally decided that the historical background was not really the point.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is living in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when he is summoned to a tribunal. Although he has committed no crime except perhaps one of attitude, the people have no use for aristocrats anymore. He might have been imprisoned or executed except that he is considered one of the heroes of the revolution because of a poem he wrote. So, the Count is sentenced to live in the Metropol. He is not allowed to leave, or he will be shot. Further, when he returns to his luxurious rooms, he finds he is to be relegated to a small room in the belfry.

The Count makes himself as comfortable as he can and continues to live a more restricted version of the life he led before, socializing in the lobby, reading, and meeting with friends. But he begins to be bored. We follow the Count as he slowly changes the purpose of his life, beginning with his friendship with a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova.

This tale of more than 30 years of life in the Metropol, I finally decided, is not meant to be realistic but is a gentle story about the effects of the Count’s gentility on other people and of the Count’s own personal development. There is a villain in the form of a character the Count calls the Bishop, a bad waiter who uses his contacts to become manager of the hotel. Life in the hotel is thus not always roses, but its employees and residents are subject more to inconvenience than to misfortune.

This is not to say that nothing bad happens. Friends are exiled to Siberia or disappear, and a famous poet commits suicide. Still, we are detached by the novel’s playful writing style from anything happening outside the Metropol and even from most of the things happening inside the hotel.

Overall, I was captured by the charm of the novel, but I don’t think it consitutes a very accurate reflection of its time and place. Horrible things were happening in Russia through these years, but to this novel, events are just footnotes and parentheses. And, by the way, the Russians executed lots of heroes of the revolution.

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Day 234: Rules of Civility

Cover for Rules of CivilityBest Book of the Week!
In 1966, the former Katey Kontent and her husband Val are attending an exhibit of Depression Era photographs at the Museum of Modern Art when they spot two pictures of an old friend of Katey’s, Tinker Grey. In one, he appears as a sophisticated, well-dressed banker, and in the other, shabby and unkempt, but lit from within. Val assumes that the man lost his money in the Depression, but Katey says that is not exactly the case.

Back in 1937, Katey and her best friend Eva Ross are two carefree working-class girls trying to have fun in New York on a very limited budget. On New Year’s Eve, they are at a scruffy jazz club when a young, immaculately dressed man comes in to meet  his brother. It is Tinker Grey, a wealthy investment advisor. The girls end up spending the evening with him and then seeing him regularly. From the first, he seems more attracted to Katey than to Eva, but fate takes a hand and links Tinker and Eva, seemingly irrevocably.

Katey and Eva are introduced through Tinker to the life of privileged young New York, entering the highest echelons of society. As Katey’s future life is decided by the people she meets during the next year, she learns to judge appearances more accurately and to hone her own acute moral sense.

Katey is a smart, witty, and engaging heroine with a strong sense of self. I found the novel to be beautifully written and absorbing. Rules of Civility is an impressive first novel from Amor Towles.