This novel from 2016, tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, who is arrested after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, on the charge of being a social parasite. While most people in his situation would have been shot, the Bolshevik government mistakenly believe Count Rostov to be the author of a revolutionary poem of which it approves. So a lesser sentence is imposed – permanent house arrest at his current place of residence, which happens to be the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The hotel’s lifetime resident is obliged to move from his luxury suite to disused staff quarters in the attic.
The early stages of his house arrest see Count Rostov continuing in the role of hotel guest. But a telling scene, when Rostov witnesses poor service in the restaurant, foreshadows what lies ahead. A young couple, who are about to say significant things to each other, are interrupted by a thoughtless waiter wanting to take their order. And if that isn’t bad enough, this incompetent then goes on to recommend an inappropriate wine for their meal! The count cannot help but interject. You begin to see that an aristocrat is potentially a very good waiter, attuned to refined, respectful behaviour with a intimate knowledge of the etiquette of dining. And, fittingly, needing work to fill his days, a highly competent waiter is what the count becomes.
I enjoyed this aspect of the book, the nuanced way it explores social and political questions. The count, unfailingly open-hearted and charming, serves to demonstrate that an apparently divided society might not be as disconnected as it appears. Aristocrats and waiters are not necessarily class enemies, forever pitted against each other. They are in fact people who resemble each other closely. Similarly, there is also reference to the hidden parallels between Russia and America, two countries which believe themselves to be implacable adversaries. A senior Russian government minister calls regularly upon Rostov who, as a well travelled man, can provide the minister with an understanding of America and the West. During their conversations, they realise that America and revolutionary Russia share an essential defining characteristic – an unflinching willingness to brush the past aside. The book’s contradictions also extend to the philosophical, as the hotel, this place of restriction and punishment, becomes a sanctuary where the count lives through some of the most precious moments of his life with people he loves. And the final contrast lies in the way a gentleman, who spends his life showing consideration, refinement and empathy can also display grit and ruthlessness. But observing “reviewing etiquette” regarding spoilers, you will understand why I won’t reveal to you, sir, or to you, madam, any more information about the denouement at this time. I would not wish to spoil your reading enjoyment.
I will just say that A Gentleman In Moscow is charming, and warm. It appeals to the emotions, but also sets you thinking about divides and oppositions, which might actually offer opportunities for fellowship and common ground. This is a graceful, humane book, serving as an antidote for divided times.