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Book Review

Manners Make (More Than) the Man

A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles

Contains: Sexual Themes
Recommended age: 16+
Fiction, History

Some books have you read them slowly. Some books have you keep turning the pages. The best books do both. Such is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

The gentleman is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. In 1922, while living in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, he is summoned before The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which is inclined to have him shot for being a noble. They remember, however, that before the Revolution he wrote a poem showing some sympathy for the cause, and so his life is spared. Instead, they sentence him to house arrest in the hotel. For life. 

For the next thirty-some years, Alexander Rostov will be a man exiled within his own country, an aristocrat living in a totalitarian regime, a cosmopolitan whose world is a single building. He adopts the maxim that if a man does not master his circumstances, he is bound to be mastered by them. How the count will master his circumstances is difficult to qualify. He is not a stoic; on the contrary, he is amiable and knows that Chateau de Baudelaire—and not Sauterne—should accompany filet of sole. He is not a saint. (Only once in the book does he utter a fleeting prayer.) I suppose the answer is that he is a gentleman. 

 Rostov begins his exile by meeting nine-year-old Nina, who, sequestered at the hotel by her governess, reveals to the Count the hidden rooms and passageways behind its walls and beneath its floors. They spy on a Party meeting. They discover the treasures the Party has hidden away (“For pomp is a tenacious force”). It is a two-way education. Later, because he knows the correct way to check a pair of runaway borzois (an upward sloping whistle in G major), he meets Anna Urbanova, an actress whose arches of her eyebrows “were very much like the marcato notations in music—that accent that which instructs one to play a phrase a little more loudly.” Life will keep her coming back to the Count. 

Count Rostov remembers the past and in some ways is emblematic of it; but he does not dwell there. At the same time, he will not succumb to the present. Though the horrors of the Soviet state make themselves felt—homelessness and starvation, the disappearance of friends, the paradox of Russia as a nation that destroys itself to survive—he will not let even a revolution stand in the way of common decency. 

In a series of vignettes through the 1920s and 30s, we see the Count’s courtesy making him more of a “comrade” to others at the hotel, whether guest or staff, than any party apparatchik. His appreciation for the gifts of others, such as the genius of the chef Emile, the poise of the maitre d’ Andrey, or the humility and wisdom of the seamstress Marina, make the hotel a larger world for him than the entire globe is for most of us. His simple compassion for another, say, the lad at the next table courting a young lady but at a loss of what wine to order, makes him richer than the gold coins he has secreted away in his desk. 

Others come in and out, sometimes overlapping. By the early 1930s, Rostov is helping to run the Boyarsky, the hotel’s famous dining room, and another motif has quietly taken the reader unawares: friendship. Besides Emile and Andrey, there is the argumentative Mikhail Fyodorovich, the Count’s friend from university days whose passion for Russian literature will eventually outweigh his enthusiasm for the Revolution. Osip Glebnikov is a party official in charge of “keeping track of certain men of interest.” (He has one of the best lines in the book; for when Rostov says that his job must be rather easy to achieve when you have these men under house arrest, Glebnikov responds that “Actually, it is easier to achieve when you place them in the ground.”) Despite being set up as antagonists, the two develop a friendship, in which the Count teaches the officer  about art and customs in the West. The American Richard Vanderwhile also becomes a friend in that most likely of places, the hotel bar, since “there are no more sympathetic souls than strangers.”

 The characters and scenes advance the tale like moves in a chess match. Seemingly inconsequential people (an angry customer at a barber shop, a boorish waiter, a party official with a scar behind his left ear) and inconsequential things (a forgotten pair of dueling pistols, seating arrangements, the viewing of Casablanca, a bottle of hair dye) will have great consequence as the Count lives out his exile. In 1938, Nina, now married, reappears. She must go to Siberia to find her husband and leaves her six year-old daughter Sofia in the Count’s charge “only for a month or two.” Towles has kept us turning the pages with his plot, and we have now reached the end-game. 

What makes you want to read slowly is Towles’s prose, which is as unaffected and discerning as the Count’s good manners. He captures a scene in a single sentence: “Across the way was a table occupied by two stragglers from the diplomatic corps who picked at their food while they awaited an era of diplomacy.” He illustrates human nature with Chestertonian precision: “Unlike adults, children want to be happy. So they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest things.” He gives you things to ponder: “the Count would never have been inconvenienced by a single soul … After all, isn’t that why the pages of a book are numbered? To facilitate the finding of one’s place after a reasonable interruption?” And the episode where the Count, Emile, and Andrey conspire to prepare and rapturously enjoy the perfect bouillabaisse is something akin to vintage Wodehouse. 

How will this tale of an urban Robinson Crusoe end? What will happen to Sofia, Emile, and Andrey? And how will Osip Glebnikov and Richard Vanderwhile play their parts? I won’t spoil it for you. But it is a deft plot with memorable characters and delightful writing. There is something more, though, and that is the gentleman in Moscow. It is not so much Rostov himself, as what he is. 

C. S. Lewis, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, says he loathed his days at boarding school and could think of only two blessings, one of which was the school library. The other was a teacher nicknamed “Smewgy.” Lewis recalls,

Nor had I ever met before perfect courtesy in a teacher… He made us a unity by his good manners. He always addressed us as “gentlemen” and the possibility of behaving otherwise seemed thus to be ruled out from the beginning … The idea that the tone of conversation between one gentleman and another should be altered by flogging (any more than by a duel) was ridiculous. His manner was perfect: no familiarity, no hostility, no threadbare humor, mutual respect, decorum. ‘Never let us live with amousia,’ was one of his favorite maxims: amousia, the absence of the Muses. And he knew, as Spenser knew, that courtesy was of the Muses. Thus, even had he taught us nothing else, to be in Smewgy’s form [i.e., classroom] was to be in a measure ennobled. Amidst all the banal ambition and flashy splendours of school life he stood as a permanent reminder of things more gracious, more humane, larger and cooler. 

That is a long quote, but it gets to the heart of a man such as Rostov, and to why I enjoyed this book so much. We don’t live in Stalinist Russia, but our times are ugly. Besides—or before—the vice and corruption, there is a fog of amousia. Manners are the outward manifestations of our inward dispositions. Like any action, they can help form dispositions. As I said, Count Rostov is not a saint, but to be with him, to read about him, is to be more than a little “ennobled.” 

Before you can have a Christian civilization, you must first have a civilization; that is, a society that is civilized, that has manners. These, not iPhones, party platforms, or any manner of “rights,” are where we need to start. If we have come to laugh at manners, the joke is on us, and we are paying the price. I don’t know if Amor Towles intended his book to be a call to arms for etiquette. But I, for one, after finishing the book with a smile, found myself reminded of “things more gracious, more humane, larger and cooler.” What more can you ask from a book? 

Because of one brief paragraph of a sexual encounter, I would say this is a book for sixteen-year-olds and above. I would highly recommend it for a husband and wife to read it aloud together. It would, I think, spark some good conversations. 

About the Reviewer

Robert Greving

Latin, English

Robert Greving has been a member of the faculty at The Heights since 1999. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps.  Originally from North Dakota, Mr. Greving earned a B.A. in history at Louisiana State University.

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