That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only our heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love.
I can hardly describe the pleasure A Gentleman In Moscow gave me. For once, the wealthy aristocrat is not the villain. Although there are plenty of people in 1920 Russia who would consider him one, to the reader he is a hero.
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was in Paris when the Hermitage fell, and returned after the Revolution. While we learn slowly of his story, we are under house arrest with him at the Metropol, the fine hotel in which he lives, for the authorities have forbidden him ever to leave lest he is shot.
How can one live in a hotel, no matter how extravagant it may be? Surely the rubles hidden in the legs of his grandfather’s table can afford him the luxuries to which he had become accustomed. But, life in Moscow passes him by as the streets and parks change without him ever seeing it first hand.
When actress Anna Urbanova falls from grace, after Stalin’s disapproval that the films she stars in refer too grandly to “waltzing and candlelight and marble stairs”, in other words nostalgically looking at times gone by, she and the Count unwittingly join the Confederacy of the Humbled.
Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confedarcy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condensation with an inward smile.
One day, the Count is paid an unexpected visit by a man named Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov, former colonel of the Red Army and an officer of the Party, who wishes to learn the Count’s secrets of being a gentleman. To develop certain diplomatic skills, for he has noticed that the Count is not reconciled to his position. Rather, he is resigned to it, with grace and style.
But these two characters are not my favorite. No, I am enchanted with Nina, the child whom the Count befriends, and with whom he plays, in the lobby of the hotel. Then suddenly Nina is grown up, and she comes back to leave her daughter Sofia with the Count. This little girl is now in his charge. She sleeps in his room on a mattress hoisted above his with cans of tomatoes stacked on top of each other. She invents a game with him called Zut (after the French phrase, “Zut alors!”) which is the only thing one can exclaim when one has run out of answers. They are utterly beautiful to read about, as Sofia grows up, and their relationship grows with them.
This novel is about Russia, and politics, and the time period from 1922 to 1954. But, it is mostly about the Count, and his friends, and life lessons seen from the interior of one hotel which somehow seems to encompass the whole world.
“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “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 most.”
The publishers have granted me one copy to give-away, to a U.S. address only please, so if you wish to enter the drawing please mention it in a comment below. A winner will be drawn one week from today.
Thank you to all who entered! The winner of A Gentleman in Moscow provided by Penguin is Lesley of Prairie Horizons. Congratulations, Les!