Literary Musing (No. 3)

If you don’t like watching sailboats at sunset because they move too slow, then “A Gentleman in Moscow” may not be the book for you. Not that it’s boring or moves slow, but like a well brewed cup of coffee or a 12 year old Scotch, it’s meant to be sipped, sniffed, swirled and savored, not gulped down.

The book opens shortly after the Russian Revolution. Our protagonist, count Alexander Rostov, is hauled before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs and accused of writing a counter-revolutionary poem. Only his connections keep him from being stood against a wall and shot. Instead, he’s declared a “Former Person” and sentenced to life imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol in a tiny servants room at the top of the hotel.

From Ron Charles review in the Washington Post:

As prison sentences go, life in the Hotel Metropol sounds a lot harder on the novelist than on the count. After all, Alexander Rostov might be able to pretend that his little attic room can “provide the satisfactions of traveling by train,” but for the writer, the task of describing decades in a single building sounds frighteningly cramped. And yet, remarkably, in Towles’s hands, it’s a wonderfully spacious setting. As he creates it, the Hotel Metropol is transfixing, full of colorful characters: some transitory, others permanent; mostly fictional, some historical. Yes, the novel offers more high tea than high adventure, but this is a story designed to make you relax, to appreciate your surroundings, to be a person on whom nothing is lost. And don’t worry: There’s some gripping derring-do in the latter parts.

In yet another example of “Authors Who Intimidate the Heck out of Me,” the simple act of grinding coffee is transformed by Amor Towles’ prose.

“Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists – the aroma of freshly ground coffee.”

If you have read “A Gentleman in Moscow, ” let me know what you think. 

If you haven’t read it, but appreciate a well crafted cup of coffee, 12-year-old Scotch, or sentences and paragraphs where every word is perfectly placed, then add this book to your must-read list.

Read well …Poppy

One thought on “Literary Musing (No. 3)

  1. Well, Poppy, my boys and I owe you thanks upon thanks (for the book) and feedback (on your own story)–and I’ve been hanging on to this post of yours for months (it was one of those springs!) because I can’t not comment on A Gentleman… probably my favorite novel of the last 10 years. With Caitlin Horrocks’ The Vexations a close second. I just recently purchased a hardback copy of Towles’ novel, because I’d read a library copy (and renewed and renewed it). I posted about it on my blog a while back because I was so enamored. Just a perfect novel–for me anyway. Characters I could feel for and gorgeous prose. Also a compelling story and history I wasn’t terribly familiar with. Did you try Towles’ debut novel, Rules of Civility? Great writing but mostly unlikeable characters, I thought. Still good–but not to the level of A Gentleman… I’m anxiously awaiting the author’s next book. In the meantime, his author website is fun.

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