Count Alexander Rostov is an unforgettable character. As unforgettable as the Metropol, the grand hotel in which he is sentenced to lifetime house arrest, beginning in the year 1922. Novelist Amor Towles didn’t invent the Metropol, but he did invent the Count, and for that he deserves the greatest applause of all.
When is the movie version coming out? That was my first thought, even before I reached the final chapters of A Gentleman in Moscow. Losing myself in this novel felt like the greatest of gifts. I chose to listen to it on Audible (an extraordinary cinematic-like experience, thanks to narrator Nicholas Guy Smith’s performance) but my Book Club friends who read the book themselves were equally enthralled with the story.
Count Alexander Rostov could have been sentenced to death by the Bolshevik tribunal that decides his fate, but because of a poem he wrote in 1913 which expressed some sympathy for the pre-revolutionary cause, it’s decided he will be allowed to live out the rest of his life inside the walls of the Metropol. It’s a magnificent hotel with a view of the Bolshoi, but it’s also across the street from the Kremlin and a few blocks from the Secret Police headquarters. If Rostov decides to venture outside the hotel, he will be shot on sight.
The story spans thirty-two years, with Soviet Russia’s tumultuous history unfolding outside the hotel’s revolving doors. The Count is only 32 years-old at the start of his confinement. As a member of the former aristocracy, he’s never worked a day in his life, which suggests he might be well-suited to a life of leisure inside Moscow’s most luxurious hotel. But most everyone needs a purpose, and that purpose reveals itself in surprising ways in the second half of the novel. No one but the Count–with his intelligence, his upbringing and his unparalleled charm–would be able to pull off what he does and in a way that’s so satisfying for the reader.
There will be a movie, I’m happy to say. More accurately, a TV version: a deal was signed in 2018 for the British actor Kenneth Branagh to star in and produce it, although further details are still a question mark. If done well, I imagine it could have the appeal of a Downton Abbey (although presumably one without multiple seasons).
Among the many fascinating characters who come in and out of the Count’s life, the Metropol is a steady presence, a character in its own right. The history of the real hotel is a story in itself, much of which I gleaned from the author’s website. Built in 1905, it was the first hotel in Moscow to have hot water and telephones in rooms, international cuisine in its restaurants, and an American bar off the lobby. Twelve years later, during the Bolshevik Revolution, it was the site of a fierce battle between forces loyal to the Tsar (encamped in the hotel’s suites) and the Bolsheviks who exchanged fire from the streets below. Almost every window in the hotel was shattered. When the Bolsheviks reestablished Moscow as the capital (after 400 years in St. Petersburg), the city did not have all the buildings it needed to house the new government. The Metropol was seized, the guests thrown out, and various officials were given rooms in the “Second House of Soviets,” the renamed hotel. But it turned out that the new communist regime was just as image conscious as other political parties the world over, particularly when the major European nations started to restore trade and diplomatic relations with Russia in the 1920s. The Bolsheviks realized that Moscow’s hotels were going to give Western visitors their first impression of the Soviet Union, so they restored the Metropol to its former glory and foreigners flowed through its doors.
As Towles reports, “Because the Metropol was one of the few fine hotels in Moscow at the time, almost anyone famous who visited the city either drank at, dined at, or slept at the Metropol.”
A Gentleman in Moscow was first published in September 2016, and its huge fan base continues to grow. One criticism leveled at the novel is that it tends to overlook the reality of life under Stalin. I think it’s more accurate to say that the horrors of life under Stalin are only as distant as a first cousin once-removed, but that’s just because the Count’s Russia is limited to the Metropol. People close to Rostov do die or disappear. He is aware of the sweeping changes in his country–which Towles refers to in the novel–but I think the once-removed history is part of the book’s appeal. Rostov is an aristocrat, but only in the very best sense of the word. Even with his reduced circumstances–a cramped attic room in the Metropol instead of the spacious suite he previously occupied–he finds ways to expand his world. He has no control over what the government does or doesn’t do. What he can control is his attitude, his spirit, and his concern for the people in his life. In the end, maybe that’s all most of us can do.