Stepping through the front doors of any respectable hotel, it’s hard not to sense the stories that have filled the place – the thousands of people who intersected within those walls, lived out their dramas and went about their business elsewhere.
“A Gentleman in Moscow,” the second book by New York-based writer Amor Towles, and one of the July selections for The Bee Book Club, takes place almost entirely within the ornate Metropol Hotel in the heart of the Russian capital. In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to perpetual arrest there by the newly ascendant Bolsheviks. His crime: He “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class.”
As vibrant as the count is, the hotel becomes just as much of a protagonist in these pages. Over the roughly 30 years Rostov is confined to the Metropol, he explores every ballroom and secret closet and introduces us to generations of staff and guests. Like the Overlook in “The Shining,” the Metropol seems to transform with the count’s moods while reflecting the tumultuous history unfolding in the Russian streets.
The real-life Metropol still sits proudly near Red Square in Moscow, 110 years after it opened its doors. In an interview with The Bee, Towles said he didn’t really get to know the hotel before writing the first draft of his book, which means much of this Metropol reflects his imagination.
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“What I’m interested in doing is writing a book about something I’m already steeped in and already loved as a fan,” said Towles, a former investment professional. “With Russia, I’ve been a fan of Russian culture since my teen years, through the Russian novels and composers and the Soviet era. ... When I come up with a premise, I try to write the book using that fandom as a foundation.”
Many of the book’s pleasures spring from Towles’ careful cataloging of period details – the manners, the clothes, the pastries, the carriages. But the book is also about the threat to that way of life, in the endangered figure of the count. As the story deepens, a question looms larger: How does a man of refinement and taste survive in a world that no longer values either? Some readers, Towles said, have asked similar questions of the present time, with its cable TV shout-a-thons and online trolling.
“The last thing I had in mind was for this book to be a parable about the way American society operates,” Towles said. “The bigger notion I’d talk about is the generation of individuals that created the figure of the count.
“They really viewed politeness or civil behavior as an outward expression of an inward struggle, and the inward struggle was a mastery of the seven sins. ... We all are born with impulses to greed and gluttony, toward lust and anger and we have our angels as well. Through meditation and consideration, and following mentors and models of good behavior, we could defeat or master these weaker impulses with the actions of higher virtue.”
Towles himself comes off as a figure from a more genteel era, with his neat attire and patient, accommodating manners – despite the clear impression that he’s the smartest person in the room. The title of his debut novel was “Rules of Civility.”
Whether it’s due to nostalgia or aristocratic glam or simply a good tale wittily told, “A Gentleman in Moscow” has found its audience. It has spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Towles’ appearance at The Bee Book Club on Tuesday, July 11 quickly sold out, with the waiting list long and growing.
When asked about the book’s draw, Towles cited Henry James, another American chronicler of morals and traditions under threat.
“Any of the novels that reach the public slowly and across time and are handed from person to person, it’s often because the novel is filling multiple aspects of promise,” Towles said. “The characters seem believably alive and there’s a communication of ideas and sentiments. It opens up questions rather than tying up bows.”
Book Club Event
What: Amor Towles, author of “A Gentleman in Moscow” and “Rules of Civility”
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 11
Where: The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St.
Tickets: This event is sold out, but a waiting list is available at www.sacbee.com/events.
Buying the book: Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “A Gentleman in Moscow” for 30 percent off the list price. The book also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through July 11 at these bookstores: in Sacramento, at five Barnes & Nobles stores, the Avid Reader on Broadway, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and California State University, Sacramento’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at the Avid Reader; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.