An outsized life in a Russian hotel
Entering a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, for an annual investment conference some years ago, Amor Towles suddenly envisioned the premise for his inventive, entertaining and richly textured second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow.
“It came to me in a flash,” Towles says during a call that reaches him in his study—“a 19th-century library” with windows overlooking the street, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a fireplace—in the townhouse near Gramercy Park in Manhattan that he shares with his wife and their children, ages 14 and 11. “I was looking at the people in the hotel lobby and having this eerie sense that I had seen them before. And I thought, what would it be like to live in a hotel like this for the rest of your life?”
Towles rushed upstairs to outline the book. Within the first hour, he knew that his character would not be in the hotel voluntarily; he would be held by force. “And I thought if a guy has to be in a hotel by force, Russia is the perfect place.”
So the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov—a Russian aristocrat arrested by the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, saved from execution because he had written an influential revolutionary poem in his youth, and then sentenced in 1922 to permanent house arrest in the servants’ quarters of Moscow’s grand Hotel Metropol—began to take shape.
But it would be a number of years before Towles actually sat down to write the novel. Now 52, the author says he’s been writing since he was a kid. At Yale, his mentor was Peter Matthiessen, with whom he remained friends until Matthiessen’s death in 2014. And during his graduate writing fellowship at Stanford, he was close to novelist Gilbert Sorrentino. But when he moved to New York City at the age of 25, he found that he “wasn’t ready to be alone in my apartment writing all day.” Nor did he find the bartending, table-waiting and fact-checking jobs of his artistic contemporaries appealing. So he joined a friend who was starting Select Equity, an investment-advising firm, and for the next decade he worked to build a successful business. In his late 30s he began writing again, and in 2011, he published his first novel, the bestseller Rules of Civility. Its success allowed him to retire and devote himself to fiction writing. In 2013, he began to work in earnest on A Gentleman in Moscow.
The action of the novel unfolds over the course of roughly 35 years. A central question the book explores is how we adapt to difficult circumstances over which we have little or no control. Towles’ Count Rostov becomes a kind of model of how to live well within very constrained circumstances. He is an educated, affable, kind man who has a passion for food, music, literature and love that seems to grow out of Towles’ own sensibilities. Towles’ evocative descriptions of food, for example, will definitely make a reader’s mouth water. “I don’t mind using the novel to sweep in many things that I enjoy,” Towles says, laughing. “That was part of the fun of it for me.”
A parallel challenge here is how a novelist makes such a confined life interesting over the course of many decades. In this regard, Towles is remarkably inventive. The Count develops surprisingly deep relationships with guests in the hotel, has an ongoing romance with a beautiful, aging actress, eventually becomes a head waiter because of his expertise in organizing social occasions, and finally becomes a loving, overly protective adoptive father to a musically talented girl whose parents disappear in the Russian Gulag. All of this happens within the confines of the hotel. And through all these changes, the seemingly narrow life of the Count lives large in our imaginations.
In addition, the location of the Count’s soft-cuffed imprisonment, the Hotel Metropol, becomes a fascinating character in and of itself. It makes an interviewer wonder, could such a place actually exist in the early years of the Soviet Union?
“The short answer is yes,” Towles says. “It was seized by the Bolsheviks because they needed office space for the government. Moscow, after all, had not been the seat of government for centuries. But when European nations recognized the Soviet government at the end of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks realized pretty quickly that the first thing foreign diplomats and businessmen would see when checking in was a crappy hotel, a signal that the revolution was failing. So they restored the hotel to its former grandeur and it became the place, not only for foreigners, but for all of Russia, who dreamed of dining and dancing there.”
Towles’ knowledge of Russian history and literature is deep, which adds a pleasing and provocative texture to the novel. But he says adamantly, “I am not a research-oriented writer. A premise gets brighter and sharper the more it’s tied to an area of existing fascination for me. That happened here. I love Russia. I’ve read all the Russian writers and admire them. I think Russian history is fascinating.”
Instead of facts and research, Towles says he thinks of his writing in musical terms. “I think the closest cousin to the novel in the art realm is the symphony. A novel has movements and leitmotifs. It has moments of crescendo and diminuendo. You feel a growing emotional force and then it backs off for reflection. A work must feel cohesive and organic and the beginning and end inform each other in a way that we can hold in our head.”
It’s an apt observation. Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow often reads like it has a song in its heart.
This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.