Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, March 6, 2017

Amor Towles, _A Gentleman in Moscow_

OUR BOOK CLUB read Towles's Rules of Civility last year; I did not like it, but the rest of the club did, so his Gentleman in Moscow wound up on our list for this year, and I did  not like this one, either, but the rest of the club did, so I am probably on a collision course with whatever his next novel turns out to be. Same thing happened to me with John Irving a few years ago.

What exactly did I not like about A Gentleman in Moscow? The premise is not all that plausible--a Russian aristocrat at the time of the Revolution gets a sentence of house arrest in a luxury hotel (rather than the gulag) because he wrote a protest poem at the time of the 1905 uprising. But the plot of Calvino's historical novel The Baron in the Trees is even more implausible--the son of a noble Italian family climbs a tree to escape parental punishment and spends the  rest of his life up there--and I absolutely loved The Baron in the Trees.

Calvino's novel, however, bizarre as its premise is, is startlingly insightful about the era in which it is set, the late 18th century, the era of the French Revolution, Lyrical Ballads, Goethe, Beethoven. Towles's novel...not so much. Russian noblemen, apparently, were gentle souls with refined tastes and exquisite senses of honor, the Bolsheviks puritanical, philistine, and brutal...as far as insight into the time and place where it is set, A Gentleman in Moscow is right in there with The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Klansman.

The Walter Scottiness of Pimpernel or Klansman persists as well in the unrelievedly arch tone of the narrative. Chosen at random: "When we first encountered Miss Urbanova in the Metropol's lobby in 1923, the haughtiness the Count noted in her bearing was not without foundation, for it was a by-product of her unambiguous celebrity." It's like that from beginning to end.

Then there's some cloak-and-dagger stuff in the last hundred pages or so as our hero sets up an opportunity for his adopted daughter, a world-class pianist, to defect while in Paris for a concert, while he himself...oh, never mind.

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