The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n.
Paradise Lost, by John Milton
“If one did not master one's circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them,” was the first piece of parental advice Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov — recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt — offers his daughter, Sofia, the night before she leaves their home at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow for her new life in Paris. Nearing the end of Amor Towles novel by this point in the telling, the Count has mastered the art of living harmoniously with circumstance, rather than allowing internal reactions to circumstance to dictate. His character, so attuned to the present moment and his place within it, takes on an almost monastic quality throughout the work. In many ways, Count Rostov embodies the peaceful, even-tempered persona so coveted by those members of our racing modern society who begin belly-breathing and yoga practices. The gentleman’s acceptance of his current situation is practically the end-goal of meditation retreats, five-step programs, and psychotherapy. Yet the Count, permanently confined to the Metropol Hotel for the crime of writing an anti-establishment poem (which, it turns out, he did not pen, himself), almost at once settles into a contented routine within the walls of the lavish Russian hotel.
One might expect a novel set entirely within a single space to, as best, lack interest and, at worst, instill a deepening sense of ennui in the reader, but this is certainly not the case. A Gentleman in Moscow, much in the way of the Count’s own manner, finds humor and peace within the simplicity of routine. Count Alexander Rostov discovers in an almost childlike fashion that within the walls of the Metropol there is a whole world to explore, if only one takes the time to notice. Beyond the obvious excitement of sliding panels and connecting rooms, simple locked doors that one can unlock if only one is in possession of the appropriate key, there are endless minutiae awaiting discovery if one takes the time to notice. There are beautiful seasonal fruits at each breakfast, 110 steps to count going to and from the sixth-floor bedroom, and of course there are a cast of reappearing characters at work in the Metropol with whom to become acquainted.
This book reminded me of another novel: Room by Emma Donoghue. Both works are set (at least in large part) within one confined space. The characters in these two stories, Jack’s Ma and Count Rostov, were wrongly forced into their imprisonment, yet manage to survive, even thrive, in the face of this adversity and do so by mastering their own minds as a means of claiming their predicament. Yes, Ma struggles more than Rostov as an abused captive, but both she and the Count take endless comfort in their children – in their deepest, most cherished relationships. In fact, [spoiler alter] both lead characters manage their final escape from their prisons thanks to the love they have for their child. Ultimately, it is this sense of being tied to one tiny enclosed corner of a much bigger world that lends mystery and wonder to both books. By focusing on the smallest details of each day – the colors on an old bedspread, the twice-tolling of an antique clock, the transfer of daylight across the floor – these authors make us so much more aware of how big our own small worlds truly are if only we take the time to look a bit more closely.
The atmosphere of A Gentleman in Moscow feels colorful and vibrant, nothing like the grey Soviet empire hovering just beyond the front door of the Metropol. Consequently, the Count’s battles are not those of politics but of pleasure and the fight to retain those small luxuries to which he was once so accustomed – reclaiming his sequestered furnishings to his assigned attic loft, identifying the telltale embossed ridges on a de-identified bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, working with the head chef to assemble the most perfect bouillabaisse from confiscated ingredients. Again, it is this focus on the present and the optimistic enjoyment of each day that drives the novel. After all, it isn’t for the love of money that a Count turns to being a waiter at the grand Boyarsky, but for the appreciation of deep thoughtfulness to the underlying desires of the guests, the attention paid to a table seating well arranged, and for clever and unusual ingredients finely prepared to exquisite taste.
A Gentleman in Moscow is pure craftsmanship, avoiding what could’ve been an obvious take on sociopolitical commentary by instead concentrating on deeper and much more satisfying themes, such as the duties of a parent to his child, the role of friendship, and finding inner-peace. If the hotel is the world, then each room contains a lesson and each chef, seamstress and guest holds the secret of a new adventure. The course of decades serves to connect the Count to a warm cast of generous workers and long-standing confidantes. And it is because of their friendships and the love and relationships they build together that the Count may, in fact, be the luckiest man in the world.