Moscow, 1922. Count Alexander Rostov is arrested and put on trial by the communists. With the royal family itself murdered and most of the nobility either dead or exiled, the future looks bleak for the thirty-two-year-old aristocrat.
Yet back in 1913 the count had become famous for a poem that seemed a harbinger of the revolution. Its exalted status gives him a cachet amongst the revolutionaries that is unique among the men and women of his class. Even though the prosecution is led by Andrey Vyshinsky himself, later the feared judge of Stalin’s show trials, the count does not disappear into the feared prison of the Lubyanka.
Nor is he set free. Instead, Rostov is sent back to his Moscow residence, which happens to be an opulent suite in the grand Hotel Metropol, where he is placed under house arrest.
But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot. Next matter.
As the Red Terror builds and wanes, Rostov remains imprisoned in this baroque monument to excess, his circumstances slowly worsening as time, his money and his luck run out. It doesn’t sound much, but this is the setting for an absolutely beautiful novel.
Rostov’s predicament and the historical background feel totally real. Amor Towles has worked magic in creating an utterly convincing fictional world. Indeed, the writer Mikhail Bulgakov was placed in a similar situation in the 1920s. Not allowed to write but somehow protected because Stalin loved one of his earlier plays, Bulgakov was never persecuted but was left to wallow in obscurity. And every so often the phone would ring and a voice with a Georgian accent would be on the other end of the line…
The count is a thrillingly real fictional creation. His refined palette and love for fine wine and gourmet dining is coupled with an extraordinary sang-froid that allows him to deal with almost any indignity that comes his way. He also makes friends wherever he goes, and even adopts the lost child of one of his fellow hotel residents when she is left with nobody else to turn to. This allows for one of the many snippets of wisdom that crop up throughout Towles’s tale.
If you are ever in doubt, just remember that unlike adults, children want to be happy. So they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest things.
The hotel too is a complex and labyrinthine setting. The French poststructuralist Roland Barthes once explained the attraction of the submarine Nautilus in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as coming from it feeling like an immersive womb protecting the occupants from the world outside. So too is the Metropole, and its residents seem mostly untouched by the turmoil of the twentieth century. The book jumps forward in time while barely mentioning what happened in the Second World War and the terrible privations suffered by the ordinary populace.
Held against his will, of course the Count also faces moments of extreme stress, but even then his kind nature and positivity help him to surmount his internal struggles.
Was he, a Rostov, preparing to surrender?
Well, in a word: Yes.
This is a truly wonderful book. I was lucky in that it was a Christmas present from my wifey because I had never heard of Amor Towles before. Spasibo, Maria!