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462 pages, Hardcover
First published September 6, 2016
To what end, he wondered, had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?
“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.”
Adversity presents itself in many forms . . . if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.Every once in a while, I come across a book that speaks to the heart of who I am, as though it's been written specifically for me. That's how I feel about A Gentleman in Moscow.
“Prosecutor Vyshinsky: State your name.The Count is found guilty but is saved from execution because he wrote a poem supporting the pre-revolutionary movement. Sentenced to indefinite house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, he will stay there until 1954. This opening scene illustrates many of the treats waiting for us in the novel - the Count at odds with the ruling party, his adherence to a gentleman’s behaviour, his courage, and the humour with which he dispatches commentary.
Rostov: Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt.
Vyshinsky: You may have your titles; they are of no use to anyone else. But for the record, are you not Alexander Rostov, born in St. Petersberg, 24 October 1889?
Rostov: I am he.
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 honour.
Secretary Ignatov: Silence in the gallery.”
When I was a kid, I read a fiction book about inner workings of a 1950s New Orleans hotel - with the no-nonsense practicality named Hotel by Arthur Hailey. It was dry and strange and a bit too technical for a piece of fiction, but I found the inner life of a large fancy hotel fascinating (and still enjoyed it on the reread). And so I was immensely curious about A Gentleman in Moscow, set inside a hotel over a few decades — the book that promised lovely writing and philosophical asides, the bits that were missing from Hailey’s a bit dry offering.
“Raised in grand homes in cosmopolitan cities, educated in the liberal arts, graced with idle hours, and exposed to the finest things, though the Count and the American had been born ten years and four thousand miles apart, they had more in common with each other than they had with the majority of their own countrymen.”
“Who would have imagined,” he said, “when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.”
“Today, the dining room was nearly empty and the Count was being served by someone who appeared not only new to the Piazza, but new to the art of waiting. Tall and thin, with a narrow head and superior demeanor, he looked rather like a bishop that had been plucked from a chessboard. When the Count took his seat with a newspaper in hand—the international symbol of dining alone—the chap didn’t bother to clear the second setting; when the Count closed his menu and placed it beside his plate—the international symbol of readiness to order—the chap needed to be beckoned with a wave of the hand; and when the Count ordered the okroshka and filet of sole, the chap asked if he might like a glass of Sauterne. A perfect suggestion, no doubt, if only the Count had ordered foie gras!”
The horror... Compared to this faux-pas, the Purges were a walk in the park.
“Since the beginning of storytelling, he explained, Death has called on the unwitting. In one tale or another, it arrives quietly in town and takes a room at an inn, or lurks in an alleyway, or lingers in the marketplace, surreptitiously. Then just when the hero has a moment of respite from his daily affairs, Death pays him a visit.
This is all well and good, allowed the Count. But what is rarely related is the fact that Life is every bit as devious as Death. It too can wear a hooded coat. It too can slip into town, lurk in an alley, or wait in the back of a tavern.”
“Even men in the most trying of circumstances—like those lost at sea or confined to prison—will find the means to carefully account the passing of a year. Despite the fact that all the splendid modulations of the seasons and those colorful festivities that recur in the course of normal life have been replaced by a tyranny of indistinguishable days, the men in such situations will carve their 365 notches into a piece of wood or scratch them into the walls of their cell.”
Compare your life to that in prison all you want, you are still rolling in luxury. Sir.
“What matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”
‘Tis a funny thing, reflected the Count as he stood ready to abandon his suite. From the earliest age we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family. We see our parents and siblings off at the station; we visit cousins, attend schools, join the regiment; we marry, or travel abroad. It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulder and wishing him well…But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance. The armoire, we are prone to recall, is the very one in which we hid as a boy; and it was these silver candelabra that lined our table on Christmas Eve; and it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears… Until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion…But, of course, a thing is just a thing.
“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” [the Count] 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 to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest conveniences…and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”