About The Author
Amor Towles was born and raised in the Boston area. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University. His first novel was Rules of Civility, a witty, elegant fairytale of New York, set in 1938. An investment professional for over twenty years, Amor now devotes himself full time to writing. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.
His second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, now available in paperback, opens in 1922, when Count Alexander Rostov - recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt - is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol. But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.
Exclusively for Foyles, Sarah Watkins talked to Amor about the challenge of creating a compelling narrative confined within the four walls of a single building, exploring the narrow border between the unbelievably actual and the convincingly imagined and how the Bolsheviks used the hotels of Moscow to provide Western visitors with their first impression of the new Russia.
Author photo © David Jacobs
Questions & Answers
At the opening of your new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest for life in the luxurious Metropol Hotel. Where did this premise come from; and was it confining or liberating to tell a story of such huge historical change through the microcosm of one building?
While paying an annual visit to a hotel in Geneva as an investment professional back in 2009, I recognized people lingering in the lobby from the year before — as if they’d never left. I found myself wondering what it would be like if you had to live in a hotel. An hour later in my room upstairs, I was sketching the outline for A Gentleman in Moscow.
Certainly, part of the reason this crazy premise attracted me was the challenge of creating a compelling narrative confined within the four walls of a single building. As a writer, you can get a certain amount of creative energy by accepting such constraints. While I certainly don’t compare myself to Melville, he is pursuing a similar strategy in Moby Dick. Once Ishmael and we, as readers, board the Pequod, we don’t get off again for over five hundred pages. Yet, through allusions, memories, philosophic analyses and a poetic investigation of human nature, Melville brings the world onto the ship. See also Thoreau’s Walden, Mann’s Magic Mountain or Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Your first novel, Rules of Civility, was set in 1938 New York and A Gentleman in Moscow spans 1922-1954 in Russia. What draws you to the early twentieth century as a subject matter?
My interest in writing about the early twentieth century is neither a reflection of a love of history, nor nostalgia for a bygone era. What has attracted me to the period is that it has a proximate distance to the present. It is near enough in time that it seems familiar to most readers, but far enough away that they have no firsthand knowledge of what actually happened. This provides me with the liberty to explore the narrow border between the unbelievably actual and the convincingly imagined.
I generally like to mix glimpses of history with flights of fancy until the reader isn’t exactly sure of what’s real and what isn’t. In terms of A Gentleman in Moscow, for instance, the launch of the world’s first nuclear power plant in Russia in 1954 is an historical fact, but the assembly of Party leaders to observe the blacking-out of Moscow is an invention. Similarly, the little copper plates on the bottom of antiques designating them as property of the People are a fact, while the wine bottles stripped of their labels are a fiction.
Is the Metropol Hotel a real Moscow landmark?
The Metropol is a real hotel built in the center of Moscow in 1905, and it was a genuine oasis of liberty and luxury during the Soviet era.
In the aftermath of the Revolution, one of the first things the Bolsheviks did was to move the capital of Russia back to Moscow from St Petersburg (where it had been since the times of the Peter Great). This posed a significant problem, however, since Moscow didn’t have the infrastructure to serve as a modern government. As such, the Bolsheviks seized the Metropol. Renaming it the Second House of the Soviets, they threw out the guests, swept aside the luxuries and installed high government officials in the suites and all manner of agencies in the rooms. Soldiers were billeted in the fine restaurant, the ballroom was cleared to accommodate large assemblies. In fact, it was in suite 217 of the Metropol that Yakov Sverdlov, locked the constitutional drafting committee of All-Russia Executive Committee, vowing he wouldn’t turn the key until they’d finished their work. Sverdlov’s gambit was an effective one, because within a matter of hours the committee emerged with that document which officially heralded the victory of the Proletariat over the forces of elitism, privilege and luxury.
Right then and there the Metropol’s existence as a grand hotel should have come to a screeching halt. But when European nations began restoring diplomatic relations and trade with Russia in 1922, the Bolsheviks quickly realised that the hotels of Moscow were going to provide Western visitors with their first impression of the new Russia. Should weary ambassadors or businessmen spend their nights in some Spartan hostel, they might draw the conclusion that Communism was failing! So, the Bolsheviks kicked all the apparatchiks out of the Metropol and began restoring the hotel to its pre-war glamor. A uniformed doorman was put back on the front steps, bellhops returned to the lobby and the orchestra was reassembled to play American jazz in the dining room on a nightly basis.
For a survey of first hand accounts of life in the Metropol, you can visit The Metropol section of amortowles.com.
Count Rostov is the most perfect gentleman, impeccably mannered, charming, adaptable without ever lowering his standards – is he based on a real historical character?
In the 19th century, the members of the European aristocracies tended to have more in common with each other than with their own countrymen. They had overlapping educations, forms of etiquette, and values. Thus in the pages of Tolstoy, we see Austrians, Poles and Frenchmen of ‘high’ birth fluidly navigating the St Petersburg ballrooms together. While my protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is an invention with his own flaws, talents and idiosyncrasies, he is also representative of that 19th-century European aristocratic class. Because he was born in Russia in 1890, however, he must watch as his world is swept aside simultaneously by a proletarian revolution and the advances of the 20th century.
Some years ago, I bought a 19th century portrait of an unknown figure in a Paris arcade. Ever since, that painting has hung on the wall by my desk. So, I suppose the Count is also based a little on him…
It is an incredibly atmospheric book. Did you immerse yourself in the period while researching and writing the book?
Rather than pursuing research-driven projects, I like to write from areas of existing fascination. Even as a young man, I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the movies and listening to the music of the era. I used this deep-seated familiarity as the foundation for inventing my version of 1938 New York in Rules of Civility. Similarly, I chose to write A Gentleman in Moscow because of my longstanding fascination with Russian literature, culture and history. Most of the texture of the novel springs from the marriage of my imagination with that interest. For both novels, once I had finished the first draft, I did some applied research in order to fine-tune details. Why postpone the applied research? Quite simply, I don’t want the accumulation of historical facts to become obstacles to the business of invention.
Your story has reignited my interest in Russian literature and prompted me to finally read War and Peace. Do have any particular favourite Russian classics you would recommend?
As a generation, we speakers of English have been given a gift in the translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. For two decades, this husband and wife team have been systematically translating every major work of Russian literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries (including Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov and Bulgakov). I would heartily recommend reading all of them in chronological order!
Chatty and informative footnotes are dotted throughout the book, almost like asides really, which I very much enjoyed. What led you to add these to the novel’s structure?
Although the story is told largely from the Count’s point of view, behind the curtain is an overarching narrator with a very different voice and perspective. Where the Count is an optimistic, indefatigable spirit, the overarching narrator is a seasoned citizen of the Soviet state who is far more cynical, critical and ironic. Initially, we hear this narrator only through footnotes; but eventually, he asserts himself into the body of the narrative. He especially appears as the voice of the Addendums and as the voice of the historical introductions that appear at the opening of 1930, 193, and 1946. I think his intrusions are an essential part of the novel, as they balance the Count’s confined experience and rosy predisposition.
The Count has many philosophical moments, for example, when he muses on the importance of withholding judgment on people as they deserve ‘not only our consideration, but our reconsideration’. Were you deliberately creating wisdom to live by when writing the book?
The seeds of the artful turn of phrase, the apt metaphor, the winning comeback, the social summary are, in fact, often products of a moment’s inspiration – presenting themselves in the midst of the drafting process or while on a walk or while staring into the distance across a plate of spaghetti. But every paragraph in the book has been edited and reedited in the hopes of bringing a moment’s inspiration into the artistic form that suits it best.
It is inevitable that life experiences will influence an artist’s work (and art benefits from this), but I wouldn’t view it as a constraining factor. Art can draw on personal experiences and transform them as wildly as our day’s events are transformed by our dreams. Exaggeration, sublimation, displacement, denial, contrast, translation and interpretation are all means by which the author takes the given and makes it new.
But as much as experience influences the creation of art, the creation of art can also influence an author’s understanding of his experiences. There are many observations in A Gentleman in Moscow which were revealed to me by my characters – when their personalities and circumstances put them in the perfect position to discern an elusive aspect of life.