What is an aristocrat? I think this is the essential question of the novel A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles.
The book begins in 1922 with a trial. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov -- descendant of many counts and other nobility, product of a genteel upbringing by his oh-so-proper grandmother, graduate of elite Russian schools, and all-around member of the czar's upper crust -- is condemned to permanent house arrest in a grand hotel in Moscow. He thus becomes a "former person." In the new Soviet state, there's no place for him, but thanks to some poems he had written in youth, the court has judged him not to deserve a death sentence.
Count Rostov spends more than thirty years in the hotel, years that the author creates in an amazing and rich way. Perhaps the count is sometimes bored, but as a reader I was never at all bored by the narrow venue in which the Count is forced to spend his days and nights. Though forgotten by the authorities and by many of his former friends and schoolmates (that is, those who survived) he succeeds in creating a series of responsibilities for himself within his limited environment. The hotel offers him more stimulation than one would expect, as it continues to some extent to preserve its former luxury and to house visitors from abroad. He even manages to preserve "the Rostovs’ long-standing tradition— of gathering on the tenth anniversary of a family member’s death to raise a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape." (p. 84)
The count, with his knowledge of the wider world, is able to speak to them in their own languages and meet them on their own terms. Though he eventually takes a job as a waiter in the hotel's fine dining room, the Boyarsky, he retains his aristocratic dignity forever. Here's how he does his job:
"At 5:45, with his five waiters standing at their stations, the Count made his nightly rounds of the Boyarsky. Beginning in the northwest corner, he circulated through the twenty tables to ensure that every setting, every saltcellar, every vase of flowers was in its proper place.
"At table four a knife was realigned to be parallel with its fork. At table five a water glass was moved from midnight to one o’clock. At table six a wine glass that had a remnant of lipstick was whisked away, while at table seven the soap spots on a spoon were polished until the inverted image of the room could be clearly seen on the surface of the silver.
"This, one might be inclined to observe, is exactly how Napoleon must have appeared when in the hour before dawn he walked among his ranks, reviewing everything from the stores of munitions to the dress of the infantry— having learned from experience that victory on the field of battle begins with the shine on a boot." (p. 203)
The count is not the only fascinating character in the book: there are many, both men and women. I wondered about both the characters and the hotel itself and especially about its kitchens and head chef Emile Zhukovsky:
"Along the wooden tables the junior chefs are chopping carrots and onions as Stanislav, the sous-chef, delicately debones pigeons with a whistle on his lips. On the great stoves, eight burners have been lit to simmer sauces, soups, and stews. The pastry chef, who seems as dusted with flour as one of his rolls, opens an oven door to withdraw two trays of brioches. And in the center of all this activity, with an eye on every assistant and a finger in every pot, stands Emile Zhukovsky, his chopping knife in hand.
"If the kitchen of the Boyarsky is an orchestra and Emile its conductor, then his chopping knife is the baton. With a blade two inches wide at the base and ten inches long to the tip, it is rarely out of his hand and never far from reach. Though the kitchen is outfitted with paring knives, boning knives, carving knives, and cleavers, Emile can complete any of the various tasks for which those knives were designed with his ten-inch chopper. With it he can skin a rabbit. He can zest a lemon. He can peel and quarter a grape. He can use it to flip a pancake or stir a soup, and with the stabbing end he can measure out a teaspoon of sugar or a dash of salt. But most of all, he uses it for pointing." (p. 175).
How did the author manage to create this historic ambience full of such vivid characters? Amor Towles' web page explains some of the matters that intrigued me. Above all: he imagined! "None of the novel’s central characters are based on historical figures, or on people that I have known," Towles states. I also wondered about the factual basis for the hotel.
"The Metropol is a real hotel which was built in the center of Moscow in 1905 and which is still welcoming guests today. Contrary to what you might expect, the hotel was a genuine oasis of liberty and luxury during the Soviet era despite being around the corner from the Kremlin and a few blocks from the head quarters of the secret police.
"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. As a result, we have an array of firsthand accounts of life in the hotel from prominent Americans including John Steinbeck, e. e. cummings, and Lillian Hellman." (Amor Towles Q & A)
I've read one of this author's books before: The Rules of Civility
(my review here
). I found the historical reconstruction in that book less than perfectly convincing. I find the reconstructed situation in A Gentleman in Moscow
much more convincing and compelling,