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A Gentleman in Moscow

May 15, 2017

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of the personal, the extent to which it’s true, as Rick says in Casablanca, that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Or whether the father in Special Topics in Calamity Physics is right: “Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.”

Finally, though, the authors who don’t believe that have moved to the forefront of my mind. There’s Tolkien, as always, saying “There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that ever happens to man is natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question.” I understand this to mean that since each of us only gets this one way of perceiving the world, as an individual, then each individual’s version of events is important; the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings popularized this idea with Galadriel’s line “even the smallest person can change the course of history” (in the book it’s “the future,” rather than “the course of history.”) And there’s Oscar Wilde, saying “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” That’s always the danger, with a reader—that she won’t keep trying to articulate ideas of her own, but allow the words of others to shape her thinking. (Obviously there’s an irony in quoting while talking about why it’s important for me to continue telling my story; it’s an irony I relish.)

And really, there’s nothing that can bring home the idea that the personal is political quite like reading a Russian novel, something I haven’t done very much since I was twenty. But I recently picked up Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow because Walker is graduating from Oberlin this weekend and I thought I could give it to him as a graduation present. In my family, it’s an even better present if it’s been “pre-read for your enjoyment” because that means once the recipient has read it, the giver is willing to discuss it. I meant to read the book as part of my gift to my son, who is voluntarily exiling himself to Siberia—a double-major in Biology and Russian, he’s gotten an internship to work at Lake Baikal this summer and fall.

But it turns out that this novel is exactly the book I needed to read just now, as I try not to despair about what is happening in my own country while trying not to worry as my youngest child leaves it for the country I grew up thinking of as the “evil empire.” One of the big questions the novel asks is why Russians kill what they love–how, for example, in 1812 they could burn Moscow rather than let it be taken intact.

The character who asks this question, Mishka, has been a political prisoner in Siberia, where he developed the habit of saying “we” instead of “I” because “for Mishka, ‘we’ encompassed all his fellow prisoners—and not simply those who had toiled on the Solovetsky Islands or in Sevvostlag or on the White Sea Canal, whether they had toiled there in the twenties, or the thirties, or toiled there still.”

Mishka asks his friend, the “gentleman” of the title,
“What is it about a nation that would foster a willingness in its people to destroy their own artworks, ravage their own cities, and kill their own progeny without compunction? To foreigners it must seem shocking. It must seem as if we Russians have such a brutish indifference that nothing, not even the fruit of our loins, is viewed as sacrosanct.”

The answer, Mishka says, came to him in a dream about the Russian poet Mayakovsky. “When I awoke,” he says,
“I suddenly understood that this propensity for self-destruction was not an abomination, not something to be ashamed of or abhorred; it was our greatest strength. We turn the gun on ourselves not because we are more indifferent and less cultured than the British, or the French, or the Italians. On the contrary. We are prepared to destroy that which we have created because we believe more than any of them in the power of the picture, the poem, the prayer, or the person.”

Yes, the person. The individual. The idea that telling your own story can make a difference in the world, can affect the way other people see it and then, perhaps, how they act. A person doesn’t have to be famous or important to do this, just persistent.

So I’m going to continue to resist, and persist in talking about books, buoyed by the friendship expressed in the comments to my previous post and the ideas I found in A Gentleman in Moscow, including that
“it is our friends who should overestimate our capacities. They should have an exaggerated opinion of our moral fortitude, our aesthetic sensibilities, and our intellectual scope. Why, they should practically imagine us leaping through a window in the nick of time with the works of Shakespeare in one hand and a pistol in the other!”

I haven’t even told you about the plot of the novel, which centers around a Moscow hotel called The Metropol where a Russian gentleman, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, spends his life under house arrest, as a “former person,” and yet persists in finding ways to express his love for the art, literature, music, spiritual life, and individual people of his country. He continues to make nice distinctions, such as the “difference between being resigned to a situation and reconciled to it,” throughout a period of politically mandated simplification and upheaval. The irony of the ending, which is delicious, is echoed, for me, by the way this novel about Russia re-awakens my hope that what an American character says–something I think most Americans have grown up believing–might be true again someday soon: “everyone dreams of living in America.”

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2017 11:10 am

    oh oh, I’ve been meaning to read this too! So just skimming your review, and glad that you seemed to enjoy it!

    • May 23, 2017 4:13 pm

      “Enjoy” may be too light a word for any novel about Russia; they demand intense, passionate feelings!

  2. May 15, 2017 2:38 pm

    The perfect book at the perfect time! Resignation doesn’t equal reconciliation – love that. This post makes me very happy and buoys my spirits as well. I intend to read this. I loved his previous novel.

  3. May 16, 2017 6:45 am

    Well said Jeanne! I have not read Russian novels for years–perhaps it is time to begin again!

    • May 23, 2017 4:15 pm

      Towles is an American writer, but the novel is very Russian.

  4. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    May 16, 2017 12:51 pm

    A little bit sideways to the other aspects of this post: I really like the idea of the pre-read book as a special gift. What a good way to make tangible the idea that books are connections between different people and minds.

    I think it’s wonderful that this book helped you shape your response to your own moment. Serendipity like that is one of the mysteries and joys of reading, isn’t it?

    • May 23, 2017 4:16 pm

      Definitely this kind of serendipity is one of the joys of reading; I like the way that reading things my family and friends are interested in widens my own horizons.

  5. May 16, 2017 4:05 pm

    First off, congratulation to Walker! Second, I love “pre-read for your enjoyment!” Third, I love your roundabout write up of the book. It makes me more interested in it I think than if you had just told me the straight plot. Finally, I am glad you are going to continue to resist and persist!

    • May 23, 2017 4:18 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed the roundabout-ness; I wondered if it was the right way to write about this book, but decided that it was the way I had to write about it at the time.

  6. May 21, 2017 12:06 pm

    I’ve been wondering for ages what this novel was like, so thank you for telling me! I think it’s going on the wish list. Russia is the part of Europe that I know least about (actually, I should say the entire Eastern block – my ignorance is quite something), and I’d love to know more. And if it’s inspired you to keep writing about books, then hurray! It’s a valuable novel.

    • May 23, 2017 4:19 pm

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it, because I think perhaps as an American I don’t pick up all the nuances of class distinctions.

  7. June 3, 2017 11:12 am

    Beautiful review Jeanne! I love how you intertwined it with what is happening in your world and our country. I’m finishing this novel up now and looking forward to seeing how it wraps up.

    • June 5, 2017 4:47 pm

      Walker said the novelist didn’t really understand Russians, so he didn’t finish the book. Oh well. I thought it had a very Russian ending.

      • June 5, 2017 10:18 pm

        I’m not at the end just yet, so can’t comment on that.. but am looking forward to it.. I feel like it’s all starting to come together and open up!

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