World Literature Today and A Gentleman in Moscow (Book Review)

I joined a new internationally focused organization this semester, the World Literature Today book club. World Literature Today is, according to the OU website,

a literary magazine founded at the University of Oklahoma in 1927. It is also a humanities center on the OU campus that hosts two annual literary festivals, and offers hands-on internship opportunities, scholarships, and courses dealing with literature and magazine publication.

They also host a book club which meets monthly to discuss a modern novel of international focus. I first joined during their February book, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It follows the life of the fictional Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a former Count who, in 1922, is spared death or a gulag sentence because of a poem he wrote that was widely regarded as a key piece of revolutionary literature, attributed to bringing many people to action. Instead, he is sentenced to house arrest in the hotel where he lives. The Hotel Metropol is located in the center of Moscow, across from the Bolshoi and the Kremlin, and it is the premier hotel in all of Russia. The book spends the next 30 years inside the Metropol, using the hotel and the interactions of its guests and employees to show the changes in the Soviet Union during this time.

The Count is a man out of time. He is refined and charming, with an encyclopedic knowledge of food, wine, and manners, and with a keen understanding of people that allows him to instantly grasp the intricacies of any social situation and react like a gentleman. In essence, he is the perfect host. These skills which would have been invaluable in his former life and propelled him to the upper echelons of aristocratic social status, are now rendered useless in the larger context of society. However, he never abandons his values, his refined manners, or his country. Ultimately, it is his love of people and his unfailing kindness and courtesy that continually win others to his side, even in the dark and difficult times when someone of his upbringing and social position would have been hated and scorned. He must call upon all of these skills when his life becomes entangled with a young girl’s, and he must do all he can to raise and protect her. It is a very quaint book, heavily driven by character rather than plot. Some may find it a bit slow, but I personally found it very engaging.

Amor Towles is an American author, and while I absolutely love his writing style (and am looking forward to reading his other book, Rules of Civility, in the near future), I and the other members of the WLT book club, found ourselves wondering what a Russian citizen might think of the way his country is portrayed here. I can safely say that this is the only book written about the USSR that I found myself wishing I could jump inside of. While the hardships of life were certainly alluded too, and the cultural shifts that took place managed to creep into the oasis of the Metropol as well,  the reader, like the Count, is ultimately shielded from many of the harsher aspects of the grim reality of the Soviet Union. I doubt this story could have taken place in real life, but I’m unsure of whether that is a good or a bad thing. Is it bad because it paints an unrealistic picture or good because it provides a more balanced and comforting perspective on a culture that many Westerners have a negative view of? Either way, I would recommend this book, especially if you like character-driven plots, food, or quaint hotel shenanigans.

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