When an author takes the reader in hand, immediately plunging her into a world of scent, sound, touch, sight and taste — a world perhaps familiar but just different enough to intrigue — when a writer can do that and hold your attention through each page, so that you can’t wait to pick the book up again, to reconnect with the author’s time and characters . . . that is as soul-satisfying to me as anything could be.
Thanks to author Amor Towles. He’s accomplished this feat twice, first with The Rules of Civility and now with the recently-released A Gentleman in Moscow. I loved The Rules of Civility so much, I couldn’t wait to read A Gentleman in Moscow, even I couldn’t fathom how a novel set in Moscow during World War II and the Cold War, times and a place that didn’t seem to hold much of fascination, could be riveting. How wrong I was.
It is 1922. The Bolshevik Revolution is holding daily inquisitions into aristocrats and summarily standing them up against a wall and administering a lethal dose of justice via bullet. Count Alexander Rostov finds himself before a tribunal explaining a poem he published years before, which the Bolsheviks consider a call-to-aristocratic-arms. Rostov admits everything and nothing in a genial, good humored, fatalistic manner — a manner the reader will come to know and love over the course of A Gentleman in Moscow.
Somehow, Count Rostov escapes execution. He is, however, sentenced to life imprisonment within the confines of his current residence, the Hotel Metropol located on Theatre Square in central Moscow. According to A Gentleman in Moscow, and Amor Towles’ website, www.amortowles.com, the Metropol was of the same vintage and standards as New York’s Plaza, London’s Claridge’s, and The Ritz in Paris. But Count Rostov is not escorted to his multi-room, luxury suite. Instead, the Bolsheviks lead him to a 100-square-foot room in the attic where he must make do.
He unpacked some trousers and shirts into the back rights corner of his bureau (to ensure that the three-legged beast wouldn’t topple). Down the hall he dragged his trunk, half of his furniture, and all of his father’s books but one. Thus, within an hour he had reduced his room to its essentials: a desk and chair, a bed and bedside table, a high-back chair for guests, and a ten-foot passage just wide enough for a gentleman to circumambulate in reflection.
But there are worlds within the Count’s world, and he finds them with the help of a precocious young lady named Nina who has somehow procured a pass key to all the rooms of the Metropol and uses it to great effect. But the Count finds not only the Metropol’s wine vault, silver room, and lost and found, he also finds love, friendship, and a life far fuller than one would imagine could be found within the confines of one hotel, however luxurious, for more than thirty years.
I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. You and your book club will love it. And the food and music options excellent.
My guess is that Amor Towles is a gastronome (though his on-line bio says only “that Mr. Towles is an ardent fan of early 20th century painting, 1950’s jazz, 1970’s cop shows, rock & roll on vinyl, manifestoes, breakfast pastries, pasta, liquor, snow-days, Tuscany, Provence, Disneyland, Hollywood, the cast of Casablanca, 007, Captain Kirk, Bob Dylan (early, mid, and late phases), the wee hours, card games, cafés, and the cookies made by both of his grandmothers”).
HIs descriptions of food, cooking, dining are among the finest in the book. But perhaps there is no way to even compare passages of such beauty ranging from food to literature to philosophy to love. (An aside: this novel is so divine I am ready to re-read it right now.)
Back to a menu — the Hotel Metropol is awash in champagne, brandy, vodka. Towles’ comments are priceless:
“Now, vodka was not the Count’s preferred spirit. In point of fact, despite his love for his country, he rarely drank it.”
“Anyone who has spent an hour drinking vodka by the glass knows that size has surprisingly little to do with a man’s capacity. There are tiny men for whom the limit is seven and giants for whom it is two.”
Some prominent menus:
Vodka and caviar
Whole bass roasted with black olives, fennel and lemon
Osso bucco (“a dish best preceded by a light and lively appetizer”)
A ten scoop ice cream sundae, each scoop a different flavor
Cucumber soup and rack of lamb with red wine reduction
But the piece de resistance for Chef Emile, the Count and maitre d Andrey, is the night when the three conspire to make bouillabaisse; it has taken them weeks, months even, to acquire all of the ingredients. The author notes 15 ingredients, I can find reference to eight: fennel, two to three fresh oranges, one and a half ounces of saffron, absinthe, haddock, mussels, celery, tomatoes. I would speculate that onion, garlic, olive oil are involved and potentially herbs of bay and thyme. That still leaves two for discovery, unless Chef Emile (and Author Towles) include salt and pepper.
All told, there were fifteen ingredients. Six of them could be plucked from the pantry of the Boyarsky at any time of the year. Another five were readily available in season. The nut of the problem was that, despite the overall improvement in the general availability of goods, the last four ingredients remained relatively rare.
From the outset, it was agreed that there would be no skimping — no shortcuts or substitutions. It was the symphony of silence. So the Triumvirate would have to be patient and watchful. They would have to be willing to beg, barter, collude and if necessary, resort to chicanery. Three times the dream had been within their grasp, only to be snatched away at the last moment by unforeseen circumstances (once by mishap, once by mold, and once by mice.)
But earlier this week, it seemed that the stars were wheeling into alignment once again. With nine elements already in Emile’s kitchen, four whole haddock and a basket of mussels meant for the National Hotel had been delivered to the Metropol by mistake.
. . . At one in the morning, the conspirators took their seats. On the table before them were a single candle, a loaf of bread, a bottle of rose, and three bowls of bouillabaisse.
. . . How to describe it? One first tastes the broth — that simmered distillation of fish bones, fennel, and tomatoes, with their hearty suggestions of Provence. One then savors the tender flakes of haddock and the briny resilience of the mussels, which have been purchased on the docks from the fisherman. One marvels at the boldness of the oranges arriving from Spain and the absinthe poured in the taverns. And all of these various impressions are somehow collected, composed, and brightened by the saffron — that essence of summer sun which, having been harvested in the hills of Greece and packed by mule to Athens, has been sailed across the Mediterranean in a felucca. In other words, with the very first spoonful one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille — where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life.
There’s a bit of a running joke about the song, Yes, We Have No Bananas a tune first made popular in 1923.
Tchaikovsky is mentioned of course, and the Count’s adopted daughter masters Chopin and a Mozart variation or two.
Amor Towles’ website includes a playlist of classics if you want to go that route: http://www.amortowles.com/gentleman-moscow-amor-towles/gentleman-moscow-music/
But the passages that most caught my attention were those of the band rocking the Hotel’s bar with American jazz during the Cold War when foreign correspondents took turns telling tall tales to try to catch the attention of the KGB. Since Mr. Towles expressed a preference for 1950s jazz, that’s what I would play. It fits the celebratory air of A Gentleman in Moscow as well. Here’s a two hour track you can play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4N1KlyEbazo
The Count: Ah, for Cary Grant to be alive to inhabit the shoes of Count Rostov. I can see Michael Fassbender in the role. Eddie Redmaybe. Jude Law. Andrew Garfield maybe?
Anna: Again, I’m wishing for Rita Hayworth in a non-Rita Hayworth world. Marion Cotillard? Jessica Chastain?
Adult Nina: Emma Watson
The roles are numerous. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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