#WhatImReadingNow : A Gentleman in Moscow

Five days later, the Count was pleased to accept a formal invitation to tea from his new acquaintance, Nina Kulikova. The engagement was for three o’clock in the hotel’s coffeehouse at the northwest corner of the ground floor. Arriving at a quarter till, the Count claimed a table for two near the window. When at five past the hour his hostess arrived … the Count rose and held out her chair.

“Merci,” she said.

“Je t’en prie.”

In the minutes that followed, a waiter was signaled, a samovar was ordered, and with thunderclouds accumulating over Theatre Square, remarks were exchanged on the bittersweet likelihood of rain. But once the tea was poured and the tea cakes on the table, Nina adopted a more serious expression—intimating the time had come to speak of weightier concerns.

Some might have found this transition a little abrupt or out of keeping with the hour, but not the Count. Quite to the contrary, he thought a prompt dispensing of pleasantries and a quick shift to the business at hand utterly in keeping with the etiquette of tea—perhaps even essential to the institution.

After all, every tea the Count had ever attended in response to a formal invitation had followed this pattern. Whether it took place in a drawing room overlooking the Fontanka Canal or a teahouse in a public garden, before the first cake was sampled the purpose of the invitation would be laid upon the table. In fact, after a few requisite pleasantries, the most accomplished of hostesses could signal the transition with a single word of her choosing.

For the Count’s grandmother, the word had been Now, as in Now, Alexander. I have heard some very distressing things about you, my boy. … For Princess Poliakova, a perennial victim of her own heart, it had been Oh, as in Oh, Alexander. I have made a terrible mistake. … And for young Nina, the word was apparently Anyway, as in:

“You’re absolutely right, Aleander Ilyich. Another afternoon of rain and the lilac blossoms won’t stand a fighting chance. Anyway …”

Suffice it to say that when Nina’s tone shifted, the Count was ready. Resting his forearms on his thighs and leaning forward at an angle of seventy degrees, he adopted an expression that was serious yet neutral, so that in an instant he could convey his sympathy, concern, or shared indignation as the circumstances required.

“… I would be ever so grateful,” Nina continued, “if you would share with me some of the rules of being a princess.”

“The rules?”

“Yes. The rules.”

“But, Nina,” the Count said with a smile, “being a princess is not a game.”

Nina stared at the Count with an expression of patience. “I am certain that you know what I mean. Those things that were expected of a princess.”

“Ah, yes. I see.”

The Count leaned back to give his hostess’s inquiry a more appropriate consideration.

“Well,” he said after a moment, “setting aside the study of the liberal arts, which we discussed the other day, I suppose the rules of being a princess would begin with a refinement of manners. To that end, she would be taught how to comport herself in society; she would be taught terms of address, table manners, posture …”

… “Go on.”

The Count reflected.

“A princess would be raised to show respect for her elders.”

Nina bowed her head toward the Count in deference. He coughed.

“I wan’t referring to me, Nina. After all, I am practically a youth like yourself. No, by ‘elders,’ I mean the gray haired.”

Nina nodded to express her understanding. “You mean the grand dukes and grand duchesses.”

“Well, yes. Certainly them. But I mean elders of every social class. The shopkeepers and milkmaids, blacksmiths and peasants. … The principle here is that a new generation owes a measure of thanks to every member of the previous generation. Our elders planted fields and fought in wars; they advanced the arts and sciences, and generally made sacrifices on our behalf. So by their efforts, however humble, they have earned our gratitude and respect.”

As Nina still looked unconvinced, the Count considered how best to make his point. … “An example,” he said.

Thus commenced the story of Princess Golitsyn and the crone of Kudrovo:

One stormy night in St. Petersburg … young Princess Golitsyn was on her way to the annual ball at the Tushins’. As her carriage crossed the Lomonosov Bridge, she happened to notice an eighty-year-old woman on foot, hunched against the rain. Without a second thought, she called for her driver to stop the carriage and invited the unfortunate soul inside. The old woman, who was nearly blind, climbed aboard with the footman’s help and thanked the Princess profusely. In the back of the Princess’s mind may well have been the presumption that her passenger lived nearby. After all, how far was an old, blind woman likely to journey on a night like this? But when the Princess asked where the old woman was headed, she replied that she was going to visit her son, the blacksmith, in Kudrovo—more than seven miles away!

Now, the Princess was already expected at the Tushins’. And in a matter of minutes they would be passing the house—lit from cellar to ceiling with a footman on every step. So, it would have been well within the bounds of courtesy for the Princess to excuse herself and send the carriage on to Kudrovo with the old woman. In fact, as they approached the Tushins’, the driver slowed the horses and looked to the princess for instruction. …

Here the Count paused for effect.

“Well,” Nina asked, “what did she do?”

“She told him to drive on.” The Count smiled with a touch of triumph. “And what is more, when they arrived in Kudrovo and the blacksmith’s family gathered round the carriage, the old woman invited the Princess in for tea. The blacksmith winced, the coachman gasped, and the footman nearly fainted. But Princess Golitsyn gracious accepted the old woman’s invitation—and missed the Tushins’ altogether.”

His point expertly made, the Count raised his own cup of tea, nodded once, and drank. …

Preferring to preserve his success, [he] opted not to share his normal coda to this delightful bit of St. Petersburg lore: that the Countess Tushin had been greeting guests under her portico when Princess Golitsyn’s bright blue carriage, known the city over, slowed before the gates and then sped on. This resulted in a rift between the Golitsyns and the Tushins that would have taken three generations to repair—if a certain Revolution hadn’t brought an end to their outrage altogether.

—Armor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Here is the setup: In 1922, after a bloody revolution that dismantles the peerage and monarchy of Emperor Nicholas II, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, age thirty-three, is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest (for life) at the Metropol, a prestigious hotel in the theater district of Moscow. He has been living there for some four years—in a posh suite surrounded by family heirlooms and antiques brought from his grandmother’s dacha—so this doesn’t seem like too much of a hardship until the Party apparatchiks have him moved to what was once a maid’s room on the top floor. The room is tiny, and the Count must choose carefully what to keep … Although the entire story is set within the confines of the hotel, this is a richly detailed historical novel.
  • I can say that because I started reading Russian fiction and nonfiction when I was twelve (Doctor Zhivago to start, of course). These were the Cold War years, the time of Anastasia imposters, spy scandals, and political and artistic defections; Russia held a fascination for Americans back then, and the publishing world did not disappoint us. John LeCarré started publishing spy thrillers in the early ’60s and really hit big with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in 1963. I loved the George Smiley character, and I particularly loved The Russia House (1989), which remains one of my favorite novels ever. Robet K. Massie’s biography Nicholas and Alexandra was published in 1967 and I devoured it. I read Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Tolstoy (the novellas, primarily) in high school, and that was about the time that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which set me on the Great Solzhenitsyn Lit Wallow of the 1970s (August 1914, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago, probably others). I even read the Arkady Renko mystery novels by Martin Cruz Smith (which began with Gorky Park). I could go on and on.
  • The person who copyedited this manuscript for Viking doesn’t understand the proper use of may/might. Might is the past tense of may, and this was consistently done wrong throughout the book. That’s my only criticism, but it’s a big one to me.
  • Read carefully. One reviewer I read said, “This story is a masterpiece of cleverly woven details.” And oh, yes, that’s it. I feel comfortable saying that every single thing in this novel has meaning. There are many twists.
  • If you want to read more about this novel, here’s an interesting interview with the author.

Tweet: Although the entire story is set within the hotel, this is a richly detailed historical novel.
Tweet: Read carefully. Every single thing in this novel has meaning. There are many twists.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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