Among contemporary works of literature, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) represents a rare combination of engaging storyline, appealing characters, master craftsmanship, and meditation on uncommon virtues. Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in a luxury hotel. His crime is writing a few lines of verse that the regime takes exception to.
The premise is intriguing though wholly fictional. A Gentleman is not so much a historical novel as a parable of modernism. While the reader waits for the blows of Soviet brutality to fall upon the hero, Towles focuses his attention on subtler evils.
Count Rostov’s good-natured gentility stands in contrast to social ills Americans will find all too familiar. In a 1933 article titled, “The Significance of Bolshevism,” English historian Christopher Dawson attributed the success of Bolshevism to a progressive spiritual void common to both Russia and the rest of Western civilization.
The count’s Bolshevik friend tells him, “We and the Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it.” The absence of traditional values such as restraint, modesty, respect, and dedicated effort number among the shortcomings the narrative brings to our attention.
Towles is no preacher. Writer Flannery O’Connor explained the often shocking turns of events in her stories with the statement, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Towles, on the other hand, leads readers gently along with winsome wordcraft, understated irony, finely drawn characters, a host of literary references, and even inspired slapstick. His story unfolds at a patrician’s leisurely pace, but each paragraph overflows with artistry.