Despite the cliché, it’s true that books can take us on a journey and transport us to another world—if we let them. Instead, it can be tempting to read more like a hotel guest than a visitor to another culture. We tend to judge a book as we would our overnight accommodations: How does it serve our needs? How comfortable does it make us? How does it satisfy and indulge us as we pass through on our way to somewhere else?
Amor Towles’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow has a lesson for the transient hotel-guest reader in all of us. Slow down, it urges, and stay a while. Ignore your itinerary, and forget the baggage you brought with you. Stay longer, go deeper, get to know the people you meet. In short, be more than a guest. Take up residence in your reading.
It was a repeat visit to a Geneva hotel, Towles says, that first planted the seed for A Gentleman in Moscow. When the writer returned to this hotel in 2009 and noticed some of the same faces from the year before, he says he “began playing with the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel.” The novel’s leading man, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, indeed finds himself stuck in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, with “stuck” here meaning a lifelong sentence of house arrest. For the Bolsheviks who have recently risen to power, the Count’s crime is, in essence, being a gentleman. They punish him by exiling him in his own country, inside Moscow’s landmark hotel: “the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home. . . . But when you exile a man into his own country, there is no beginning anew.”
What, the novel wonders, will Count Rostov make of a life without beginnings? The opening chapter shows him entering the hotel for the last time. He greets the familiar lobby and acknowledges the doorman, the desk clerk, and the bellhops he knows well. Only now he’s a prisoner rather than a guest, headed up to cramped servants’ quarters in the attic instead of his third-floor luxury apartment. There’s been a seismic yet invisible shift in power, and they’re all going to have to figure out how to coexist as compatriots. And the Count his going to have to figure out how to exist as all. “A man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them,” he muses early on. But how will he give shape and meaning to his days? How will he make the hotel a home?
In Towles’s hands, the Metropol Hotel becomes more than a backdrop. It is the story’s raison d’être. Certainly the Metropol—a grand dame of a hotel, decked out in opulent style and replete with a barbershop, florist, and fine dining—seems a decent setup for life in prison. And yet there’s something dangerously vacuous here. A hotel is, by definition, predicated on temporary stays and passing acquaintances. It’s a place that encourages anonymity, distance, and separation. A hotel is the means to an end—never its own destination.
Though the Count first attempts to master his circumstance “by committing to the business of practicalities“—maintaining a routine of refined habits to pass the hours—that superficial existence soon wears thin. And then he meets an unlikely friend, a 9-year-old named Nina who shows him more of the Metropol than he ever imagined:
Within the Metropol there were rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors. The linen closets. The laundries. The pantries. The switchboard!
It was like sailing on a steamship. Having enjoyed an afternoon shooting clay pigeons off the starboard bow, a passenger dresses for dinner, dines at the captain’s table, outplays the cocky French fellow at baccarat, and then strolls under the stars on the arm of a new acquaintance—all the while congratulating himself that he has made the most of a journey at sea. But in point of fact, he has only exposed himself to a glimpse of life on the ship—having utterly ignored those lower levels that teem with life and make the passage possible.
Nina had not contented herself with the views from the upper decks. She had gone below. Behind. Around. About. In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy. In her first weeks, the building had grown to encompass the life of two city blocks. In her first months, it had grown to encompass half of Moscow. If she lived in the hotel long enough, it would encompass all of Russia.
With her trusty skeleton key, Nina both literally and figuratively unlocks spaces the sophisticated Count never would have gone. Their unlikely friendship is the start of something big, though neither knows just how big until their paths cross again years later. During the decades in between, Count Rostov becomes an altogether different type of gentleman inside the walls of the Metropol. He opens himself up to the life and people around him, exploring the hotel from top to bottom, developing friendships with the staffpeople who used to serve him, even taking a job as a waiter in the hotel restaurant. Over the course of the novel, Towles peels back the layers of the hotel walls to uncover a network of human interaction and friendship. It turns out this place is teeming with life, and the Count decides to fully participate in it.
He doesn’t leave off his gentlemanly ways. Oh no, he remains ever the well-bred man Towles has made him: charming, elegant, and attentive to the sort of social, cultural nuances that his up-and-coming countrymen are ready to discard. But Rostov’s challenge is to discern which attributes are truly noble, when class is cast aside.
He finds a true companion in the actress Anna Urbanova, who also has to make adjustments from old life to new as she struggles to get work and keep up the glamorous lifestyle she once enjoyed. Faced with “a profound setback in the course of an enviable life,” Rostov and Anna each find themselves in the not-so-illustrious ranks of the “Confederacy of the Humbled”: “They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.” Though their relationship seems casual (it’s hard to be otherwise with a free woman and an incarcerated man), their shared experience gradually turns into real love. They understand one another—what they’ve lost, what’s been taken away, but also what they’ve gained. “‘I’ll tell you what is convenient,'” Rostov confides to Anna late in the story, as they compare notes on the lives they’ve lived. “‘To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me the most.'”
Like the Count, we are meant to learn a thing or two while we are in the custody of A Gentleman in Moscow. Though it never calls us out, we are part of this novel’s “gentle readers,” a group Charlotte Bronte and other nineteenth-century novelists weren’t afraid to address. Gentle readers are meant to be kindly disposed toward our books, amiable even. But we also read from a place of privilege; maybe we aren’t truly “genteel,” but we’re the kind of people with the education, pocket money, and leisure time for a novel. Sure, I’m generalizing, but doesn’t some of that ring true?
As gentle readers, we need this novel to speak to us. It forces us to consider not just what we value in a life, but what we value in a book. Do we opt for the convenient, or do we embrace opportunities to be inconvenienced? Do we remain gentle readers, or do we let ourselves be vulnerable and emotionally involved? Do we treat characters like hotel staff, there to serve us and reinforce our own comfort level, or do we get to know them on their own terms? Do we look at a book as a temporary escape, or a chance for true transformation? Do we stop by, or do we take up residence?
A Gentleman in Moscow whisks us away to a luxury hotel, in the company of a gentleman with a real ability to charm. But it does something more, if we look beyond the gleaming surfaces of the lobby, beneath the surfaces of its pleasant story. There are hidden passages in this hotel and lessons in this novel. There’s a purposeful person inside that gentleman, just as there’s a more thoughtful, engaged reader inside all of us.