Amor Towles. Courtesy of the artist

Amor Towles’ Grand Moscovian Hotel

The author’s new novel sees the Russian Revolution through the eyes of the aristocracy.

Amor Towles’s second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, centers around Count Alexander Rostov, a wealthy member of the aristocracy who in the early 1920s finds himself on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution. For the crime of his wealth and upper-class roots, the Count is sentenced to live under house arrest in a cramped room tucked into the top of a grand Moscow hotel called the Metropol. And there he stays, for three decades.

The Count is a wondrous literary creation—dignified and intelligent, but also weirdly displaced and kind of petulant. As a reader, you don’t know whether you should respond with disgust at his unpreparedness for the roughness of the real world or appreciate that his coping mechanism—pretending that the Revolution merely left him temporarily indisposed—is so marvelously effective. This is a character at once plain-faced and complex, the rare protagonist who’ll live in your head for years.

Comparisons between novels and films are often misleading and unfair to both, but I can’t be the only reader for whom the opening pages of Moscow bring to mind Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Like the film, the book is densely populated with a broad and mildly cartoonish cast of characters, it’s set in a beautiful and sprawling hotel, and it’s enlivened with a broad and gracious variety of wit.

But that comparison is perhaps a feint masking an even apter relationship: Anderson himself was very open about his film’s relationship to the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), who went largely unappreciated while he was alive. And in fact Towles’ book is even more worthy of a claim to Zweig’s legacy than Budapest: Both Towles and Zweig write deceptively light prose that enchants a reader, and both use their chipper cleverness to disguise a considerable darkness.

Whereas Zweig’s fiction always recoiled from the Nazi occupation that forced him to flee his home in the late 1930s, Moscow follows 30 years of Russian history, from the Revolution to the dawning of the Cold War, all from within the walls of the Metropol. Some of the 20th century’s most brutal moments unfurl before the eyes of an inscrutable protagonist who tends toward heroic displays of understatement: “Let us concede that the early thirties in Russia were unkind.” That’s certainly one way to refer to famine, riots, brutality, and the rise of Stalin.

Undoubtedly some readers will chafe at the idea of an entire book that witnesses nearly a third of a century of a nation’s suffering from a sheltered aristocrat’s perspective. They perhaps miss the point: In the Count, Towles has created a marvelous stand-in for the resilient human spirit. Even in rags and imprisonment, he bears himself with dignity. Even if just in his own mind, he is a Count.

Amor Towles reads at FOLIO: The Seattle Athenaeum, 348 Marion St., folioseattle.org. $5. All ages. 7 p.m. Wed., Sept. 21.

Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.

More in Arts & Culture

A scene from the 2017 Seattle Pride Parade. Photo by Bobby Arispe Jr./Flickr
Seattle Pride Pick List

Maximize your Pride Weekend experience with these standout celebrations and activities.

Hulking out at the ACE Comic Con in Glendale, Ariz. Photo courtesy of ACE Comic Con
The Pop-Up Disruptor Con

ACE Comic Con heads to Seattle this week with a stripped down, star-focused model. Will it work?

Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan is still a teen, making ‘Lush’ an even more ridiculous indie rock achievement. Photo courtesy Ground Control Touring
Pick List: Snail Mail, Sounders Pride, Peach Kelli Pop

The week’s best entertainment options.

Dino-Might

While peppier than its predecessor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom still feels very calculated.

Photo by Brett Curtiss/Flickr
Memories of Prides Past

We caught up with some notable locals to reminisce about their favorite moments from the festivities.

Illustration by Taylor Dow
Indignation and Compassion

Cancer season, and summer, begin with choppy waters.

Putting in the Werk

While best known for underground dance music, Kremwerk has quietly fostered Seattle’s alternative queer entertainment scene.

Take dad out to the ball game, take dad out with the crowd… Photo by Elise Lin/Flickr
Father’s Day Pick List

Make the most of a day with the ol’ man with these dad-centric activities.

Speedy Ortiz with the candlestick in the flowery room. Photo courtesy Ground Control Touring
Pick List: Speedy Ortiz, Men in Blazers, Fremont Fair

The week’s best entertainment options.

Most Read