Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Amor Towles' A gentleman in Moscow

There's nothing like a bit of dissension to liven up a meeting! And so it was that our April meeting of Amor Towles' novel A gentleman in Moscow was a lively one given there were some questions raised amongst the overall positive responses to the book.

The novel spans over three decades, and chronicles the life of the aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov under house arrest in Moscow's grand Metropol Hotel.

First impressions

  • Delightfully written, containing irony delivered with grace and wit rather than with bitterness.
  • Loved it, hilarious and well-written, enjoyed the humour, such as the "wine label" story, so clever.
  • Loved the literary and historical allusions, its description of communist Russia without the horrors, its portrayal of gentle manners, a masterpiece.
  • Read it while travelling to Russia last year, and enjoyed reading it in context. 
  • Enjoyed the hermetic life, though found the idea a bit of a stretch: would Stalin really have let such a person live under house arrest like that.
  • Loved the tone, and how the Count could put a positive spin on the things that happened to him. Liked his optimism and "can do" attitude. Enjoyed the cultural allusions, and the historical setting.
  • Didn't like it, because it's intellectually dishonest; doesn't believe aristocrats thought the way the Count does, and didn't like the references to 21st century corporate language like "facilitate"; was able to go with it as the story of someone forced to live in a grand hotel. (Reminded her of the Grand Budapest Hotel film.)
  • Really enjoyed reading it, but had some disquiet about Towles' intention: why did he write it? Saw it as a construct, rather than something meant to be believable. 
  • Enjoyed the book, and felt that each chapter could be a mini-book.
  • Wondered about Towles intentions, but thought it had lovely Austen-like observation and commentary on human nature.

Our member's concern about the book being "intellectually dishonest" got our discussion off to a strong start. 

Several argued that Towles does reference the "ghastliness" of life at the time. There are references, for example, to starvation, and characters are shown as disappearing (Nina) or suffering (Mishka). One member suggested that the fact that the book doesn't hit its readers with a sledge-hammer makes it more powerful.

It was also suggested that the interest in American culture - including films like Casablanca - is believable, that there was in Stalin's days a gap between public rhetoric and private behaviour. Stalin, for example, loved watching Western films.

Part of our discussion revolved around its form and tone. Is it a realistic book (like Dickens and Tolstoy) or more like an Austen or Henry James book of manners or, even, more of a fable or fairy tale? It does not hang together well as a realistic story, many of us felt, and so should not, perhaps, be judged on the basis of realism.

Our main naysayer raised the issue of the Count's shooting the Hussar and his fleeing to Paris. She felt this held some clue to him and his role. This resulted in our discussing whether the Russian aristocracy had made a practice of visiting Paris, or whether this was something unusual for the Count to have done.

We also spent quite a bit of time discussing the ending - what it meant, whether we liked it, whether it made sense, why the Count would do what he did. How we viewed the ending depended somewhat on how realistic we thought the book was!

We also talked about what we enjoyed about the book: the humour, the easy-reading style, its cleverness (including fun names like Anna Urbanova), the satiric footnotes, the characters, and its depiction of life in a grand hotel.

The Count and manners

We spent some time discussing the Count, and whether he had changed during the course of the novel. Most felt he did, though was it more in degree than substance? One mentioned his discussion of convenience versus inconvenience, and his recognition that inconveniences were more meaningful:

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

Another commented on his momentary slip, resulting in his friends calling him Count Blabbermouth and the Bishop joining the Triumvirate's daily meeting.

We did note that the Count was adaptable, enabling him to make a life for himself in the face of loss of freedom, position and possessions. One member commented on "his unwavering classiness".

Talking about the Count raised the idea of manners, given the Count's focus on good manners. How important are manners, a member asked? What role do manners play in the idea of being "a civilised person"? Good manners, politeness, can be superficial, and divisive, but do they also have a positive role in human relationships? We were amused that the Count's knowledge of and focus on food - how it's cooked, what wine goes with what, etc - closely matches today's foodie trends!

We thought that the book had an element of the comedy-of-manners genre, more than the social realism of Tolstoy and Dickens to whom the Count occasionally refers or alludes.

Towles' intentions

Some members had checked Towles' website where he writes that it was inspired by his noticing during his travels that some people spend long times in grand hotels. Hence he had

the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia—where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars.

A member shared Towles' description of the structure of the novel. He says that the book

takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.

This aspect of a number of "things" appearing ("people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events"), which all come together to mean something later, is a feature of the novel that one member loved.

Another member shared a quote from the novel that intrigued her. The Count says:
I suddenly understood that this propensity for self-destruction was not an abomination, not something to be ashamed of or abhorred; it was our greatest strength. We turn the gun on ourselves not because we are more indifferent and less cultured than the British, or the French, or the Italians. On the contrary. We are prepared to destroy that which we have created because we believe more than any of them in the power of the picture, the poem, the prayer, or the person.

We discussed what we felt this meant. Is he saying that, for Russians, it's their essence, their culture, that is more important than concrete objects? How does this idea fit into the novel's overall theme/meaning?

Whatever Towles' intentions were, we saw several themes, including the ability to adapt to your circumstances, the power of friendship, the dangers of ideology. 

Finally, whatever it was about, the novel proved to be a great one to discuss.

Other works

As often happens during our discussions, other works popped into our minds, including:
  • CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia: because of going through the cupboard
  • George Orwell's Animal farm: its depiction of communism
  • George Orwell's Down and out in Paris and London: his description of hotel kitchens.
  • Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago: its response to the Russian Revolution
  • Death of Stalin film: its evocation of Stalin's death

Present: 10 members (plus some input from an absent member who sent some notes in!)

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