When readers of A Gentleman in Moscow enter the glamorous Metropol Hotel alongside the protagonist, they are not, like the book’s hero, in exile. Rather, they are escaping to a world of sleight of hands and connoisseurs, a paradoxical world of lavishness amid the upheaval of 20th-century Russia.
Towles bases his novels on a simple idea.
In A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles said the idea was this: “Man gets trapped in hotel for 30 years in Russia.”
Over the next year and a half, Towles imagined the ornaments that would decorate his pages: the intricacies of the Metropol Hotel, the characters from the maître d’hôtel to the florist, and the imprints of Russian history — real and embroidered.
“I have a very rich understanding of the book before I actually start writing chapter one,” Towles said.
A Gentleman in Moscow captures 30 years of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s life exiled within the walls of the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow — a sympathetic punishment from the Bolsheviks. The Count explores the hidden corners of the hotel, from a secret boiler room for burning illicit love letters to the ballroom for testing the laws of physics.
The Count soon discovers the surprisingly intricate life the historic building offers.
He befriends a variety of characters, including young Nina (thanks to his intimate knowledge of princesses) and the American diplomat (thanks to his equally intimate knowledge of vodka).
Atom Atkinson, director of literary arts, said the novel provides an “unexpected” lens into the week’s theme, “Russia and the West.”
“You see a lot of the relationship between Russia and the West play out inside not just the book, but inside the confines of this person’s life inside this hotel, whether it’s through his … imaginings of the lives of the people he loves in places like Paris or his love of (Humphrey) Bogart,” Atkinson said.
Beyond allusions to “Casablanca,” Atkinson said the book also speaks to “Russia and the West” on a structural level, as Towles is an American writing a tale of Russia’s past.
They said the novel becomes a portrait of a person both excluded from and immersed in the center of a Russian cultural moment. The Count is ambidextrous in this sense, both an insider and outsider to Russian history, perhaps similar to some Western audiences beyond the fictitious pages.
“One thing that Amor Towles does extremely well in this book is allow some of the Count’s sensibilities and attention to detail to live inside the sentence itself,” Atkinson said.
For example, the Count’s appreciation for tradition and awareness of social intricacies — even for something as seemingly minor as seating arrangement — have “tremendous impacts” on the novel’s plot and even history itself, according to Atkinson.
The artfully orchestrated sentences, what Atkinson calls “extraordinary writing,” convene to create the book’s overall structure, which forms the shape of a diamond. The chapters progress and regress on a doubling principle, mirroring the walls of the Metropol, waxing and waning with the inevitable epoch.
“In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy,” Towles writes in the book. “If she lived there long enough, it would encompass all of Russia.”
Just as the Count’s world inside the Metropol widens with time, Towles’ knowledge of the mechanics and mirages of the Metropol deepened with writing. As he wrote, characters spontaneously divulged backstories; settings confessed embellishments.
Towles described his writing process through one scene in which the Count and his friends Emile, the chef, and Andrey, maître d’ of the Boyarsky, prepare bouillabaisse.
“I’ve decided it would be interesting to have the Count and the kitchen staff … come together to cook something as a way of referencing the shortages in Soviet era, and also the importance that a meal can play in the bond, the forming of a friendship, of memories,” Towles said.
Starting with this sketch, he let the idea marinate, filling in the gaps with the particulars, such as the appropriate dish.
He realized bouillabaisse, the traditional Provençal fish stew, which calls for the “springing together” of sparse ingredients from saffron to seafood, was the perfect centerpiece to this expression of camaraderie.
From there, Towles visualized the scene, the friends and the ingredients.
“And then in the course of writing it, part of the pleasure is the imagining processes,” he said. “There are things that I discover along the way. I know there are oranges in the recipe, so I know there are oranges in the kitchen. I know Andrey has gone to get them, and I know I decided at a certain point they are going to talk about what they did when they were younger.”
Having already established Andrey’s theatrical hands, elegantly pointing to wine lists and masterfully straightening silverware, Towles suddenly realized, as Andrey picks up an orange, that he was, of course, a juggler.
After Andrey astonishes his friends with a circus act of oranges, the Count is, naturally, compelled to test his skills with a gambit.
To everyone’s surprise, including Towles, Andrey juggles Emile’s trusty chef’s blade.
Then, one prying character storms through the kitchen doors and catches the three friends in their indulgent moment of bouillabaisse and legerdemain.
“That kind of comes to a surprise to me, too,” Towles said. “That was not planned from the beginning … (but) would add to the comedy of the scene and the excitement of the event.”