Book Review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

5-stars

gentleman in moscow

A book that soothes and warms you with its infectious geniality. A book filled with optimism, verve, self-belief and, incongruous though it seems, Communism. A gorgeous story, whose luxury comes not from the fine dining, orchestral music and room service of the best hotel in Moscow, but from its generosity of spirit.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a gentleman in every sense of the word: not just thanks his to family name, but to his undying optimism and good humour. He is a gentleman in the age of Bolshevism, he is a “Former Person,” he is a prisoner of the state. Once accustomed to all the finer things in life, a gentleman of distinction and leisure, he is now under house arrest till the end of his days. But he learns that life has so much more to offer and the Hotel Metropol must now become his world.

But there are worse places to be put under house arrest than the most glamorous hotel in Russia. And besides, one can never predict who might stroll through the elegant revolving doors and change your life forever: a forthright girl, a brooding poet, an elegant movie star, an American ambassador, a prissy hotel manager, a one-eyed cat, a cantankerous chicken…

Despite Rostov’s confinement, the story does not feel the slightest bit confined. Where better to accommodate important committees on commerce and industry than the grand halls of the Metropol, while a curious girl and a Count can quietly observe? Outside the hotel, queues of people line the streets to get a new pair of shoes, and city monuments are brought down to make way for something more utilitarian. We peer into the Kremlin offices and travel out to rural farms; we hear stories of a rich man’s past and a loving husband’s broken home.

A world of experience, sprawling outwards and curling back inwards; a spiralling map that leads back to the Hotel Metropol and the ever charismatic Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, “the luckiest man in all of Russia” (p313).

 “Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” (p441-2)

“The Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” (p417)

(I really tried to delete one of these quotes for the sake of brevity, but I just couldn’t.)


ISBN: 9780091944247

Publisher: Cornerstone

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow

Author: Amor Towles

Book Review: “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde”

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

By Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hyde.jpg

Thanks to over a century of interpretation, the story of Jekyll and Hyde has been retold over and over. Thanks to TV, film and generations of school teachers, this classic novella is part of our national and, indeed, global culture. Everyone knows the basics: a scientist, Dr Jekyll, creates a formula to separate his evil qualities from himself. But rather than purging his evil, he gives it a face and a body to call its own. As a result, Jekyll periodically transforms into his evil doppelganger, Mr Hyde. As Hyde gains more and more control over Jekyll, terrible consequences follow.

“Street after street, and all the folks asleep – street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a  church – till at least I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and beings to long for the sight of a policeman.” (p.3)

It is a classic for a reason: it keeps you turning the pages, it makes your heart beat faster. It makes you want to ask the questions you’re not sure you want answered. The gothic atmosphere is timeless and potently imagined. Seen through the eyes of Mr Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and solicitor, much is kept from us and more still is never truly revealed. We only catch glimpses through closing doors and hear footsteps down dark alleys. The rest is up to us.

Born of Gothic Romanticism, Stevenson’s novella focuses on themes of morality and human folly. Cloaked in the shadowy alleyways of Victorian London, deliciously grimy and decadent, Jekyll has embarked on a dangerous game. Despite the warnings of his fellows, he is wont to delve further into the mysterious existence of morality than is wise, upsetting the delicate coexistence of the soul and the human body.

I have read and studied a fair amount of Gothic literature, but “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” never featured on the reading list, so I have only just got around to reading it. I wish I had read it before, because it compounds huge amounts of that era’s nuances into such a small space: doppelgangers, shadows, mad scientists, tragedy, morality, suspense, murder, mysticism – all in fewer than 100 pages. Understanding the ideas and devices that define Gothic Romanticism is in no way necessary to read and enjoy this novella, but if you do have some understanding and have yet to read it, I would heartily recommend it.

 

ISBN: 9780141389509

Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd

Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson