From Soviet Russia to the American rural South
Time for the book review machine to travel back a few years.
Two friends recommended I read Mark Towles’ novel “A Gentleman in Moscow” (Viking Press, 2016, 462 pages). After I waited several weeks at my public library for the novel to become available, I snatched up a copy from the “New Book” section and trotted home to see what the fuss was all about.
What I discovered was a wonderful story about Russia, the Soviet Union, human greatness, and the age in which we now live.
In 1922, precisely a century ago, a Bolshevik court sentences Count Alexander Rostov to lifelong imprisonment in a luxury hotel, the Metropol. The Bolsheviks place Rostov in a cramped room on the upper floor of the hotel, where he lives for decades.
During this time, while Russia undergoes political and cultural upheavals, Rostov deepens his friendship with the hotel’s staff, becomes the lover of a Russian actress, takes a young girl, a musical prodigy, into his custody, and works in the hotel as a head waiter. He wins many friends, defends his adopted daughter from the state, and even gains the respect and approval of a man associated with the Kremlin.
To say more of the plot of “A Gentleman in Moscow” would spoil the story for readers. Suffice it to say that this is one of the finest novels I’ve read in years.
What sets this book apart from so many others are the wise insights of the author, their pertinence to our own age, and his superb writing.
In this passage, for example, Mishka, the count’s friend and a revolutionary who falls out of favor with the authorities, asks “How can we understand this, Sasha? What is it about a nation that would foster a willingness in its people to destroy their own artworks, ravage their own cities, and kill their own progeny without compunction?”
In another chapter, Towels sums up the ugly lust for prestige of every revolutionary of the last century:
“For pomp is a tenacious force. And a wily one too.
“How humbly it bows its head as the emperor is dragged down the steps and tossed in the streets. But then, having quietly bided its time, while helping the newly appointed leader on with his jacket, it compliments his appearance and suggests the wearing of a medal or two. On having served him at a formal dinner, it wonders aloud if a taller chair might not be more fitting for a man with such responsibilities. The soldiers of the common man may toss the banners of the old regime on the victory pyre, but soon enough trumpets will blare and pomp will take its place at the side of the throne, having once again secured its dominion over history and kings.”
That same description applies to every tinpot tyrant, mass-murdering dictator, and ambitious politician since the early 20th century. They denounce pomp and circumstance in their predecessors, and then indulge themselves in rank and privilege.
Here in this paragraph Mishka again remarks on the ugliness and destruction brought by the Bolsheviks:
“Our churches, known the world over for their idiosyncratic beauty, for their brightly colored spires and improbable cupolas, we raze one by one. We topple the statutes of old heroes and strip their names from the streets, as if they had been figments of our imagination. Our poets we either silence, or wait patiently for them to silence themselves.”
Towles’ story reminds us that the wrecking balls of revolution are aimed at wiping out the past, at erasing our memories of culture and history.
Near the end of the story, the Count is visited by a woman, Katerina, who also loved Mishka, now dead. As she departs, Rostov asks if he can help her in any way.
“Katerina looked surprised at first by the Count’s offer, then ready to dismiss it. But after a moment, she said: “Remember him.”
Remember the man who stood athwart of history is the lesson here.
“A Gentleman in Moscow” provides a timely reminder of this resilience of the human spirit when faced with oppression and injustice. Count Rostov and his friends offer us a way to keep our human dignity and honor in hard times, when a powerful government may enforce its whims on a subject people.
Something to bear in mind.
On a completely different note, a full review of Rick Bragg’s “The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, 244 pages) will soon appear in the next issue of Smoky Mountain Living magazine, but I wanted to point readers of The Smoky Mountain News to this wonderful story of a stray dog adopted by Bragg and his family. Speck, as they call the stray, is not a good dog. In fact, “he is often a terrible boy, a defiant, self-destructive, often malodorous boy, a grave robber and screen-door moocher who spends his days playing chicken with the Fed Ex man, picking fights with the livestock, and rolling in donkey manure, and his nights howling at the moon.”
If you’re a dog lover, whatever that pet’s personality, here is a story that should delight you. Bragg’s humor and observations both about his family and about Speck should bring readers some chuckles and some insights into family bonds and screwy canine behavior.
Two thumbs up on both books.
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I loved both of these books. Thanks for the recommendation.