When John Tamny asked me to write a book review of A Gentleman in Moscow, I knew immediately what resonated with me and how I wanted to convey these thoughts. But as a couple of weeks elapsed since finishing the book, more and more thoughts crisscrossed my consciousness. As I studied these feelings, I surprisingly discovered that my appreciation for my family and upbringing was at the center of the pleasant emotions which stirred inside of me as I turned each page.
But first, let’s get the obligatory twaddle out of the way. The author: Amor Towles. Did I enjoy the book? Yes. Did the author’s prose and writing style contribute to my enjoyment. Yes, most definitely. Was it an exciting, spellbinding, action backed thriller? No. It was not meant to be.
The who, what, where, when and why. Count Alexander Rostov. The Russian Revolution. Moscow. 1922-1954. As a “Former Person,” Count Rostov was exiled within the walls of the Metropol Hotel.
I have been enamored with the Russian classics for several decades. Certain images fascinate me and make me wish I could witness those scenes. Raskolnikov deliriously wandering the streets of St. Petersburg. Sophia reading the story of Lazarus. Levin toiling with the peasants at Pokrovskoe, Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha’s robust and very Russian philosophical soliloquys at a provincial Russian Inn. There is wonderment in the past, especially in lost civilizations where there was once great beauty, heightened thought, elegant manners and great estates. It’s all gone now, except not in the mind of Alexander Rostov, who by his very nature represents the noble past and all its loveliness.
I have always been fascinated with Arthurian legend. Again, what was it like? Roman Britain was wealthier than Rome itself. And then, it all ended. How I would have loved to have seen it. Now, my mind wonders to family and the mystery of my DNA. I did not know until well after I had read all the King Arthur tales that my deceased father was also spellbound by their romantic lore. Before I was born, we had several dogs on our farm all named after Arthurian characters. I never really knew until my oldest brother told me. Recently, my son in San Diego got a new dog. I asked what he named him. He replied: “Arthur, after King Arthur.” Just like dad, without my even knowing, he too is a fan. We then waxed on, expressing to one another our deepest sentiments and thoughts as to why those ancient stories are so meaningful. Besides throwing “the ball” with your son, there are few things in life that compare to these sorts of conversations.
Some books I plow through. This one was different. It was much akin to reading a daily devotional, where one reads a passage or two to elevate oneself and set the tone for the day. I only wanted to read about 10 pages at a time. The best way to describe these visits with the Count is “pleasant.” It was much like having an affable and erudite neighbor who one would stop and chat with on a morning walk.
Once again, my thoughts drifted to my father, family and upbringing. I remember all the lessons that Dad taught me. The highest form of manhood is to be a gentleman. I can recite a litany of rules more numerous than Leviticus, but I also have a kaleidoscope of images, gentlemanly conduct I witnessed growing up that is indelibly imprinted on my consciousness. I can remember certain instances, such as Dr. Griffith popping up in his white dinner jacket at the Holly Ball every time a lady got up from the table. There was something manly and noble about it, and very much worthy of emulating. My drinking and carousing at the University of Virginia often got in the way of my better manners, but by the time I was 4th year I discovered that the self-worth of being a gentleman was much more meaningful than being a boorish lout hellbent on instant gratification. I have Liz Gamble and Mary Nell Smitherman to thank for the final stage of my metamorphosis from sometimes lout to gentleman. Both were the ultimate good girls, cultured, smart, the prettiest girls on Grounds and always immaculately adorned. For some inexplicable reason that defied all logic, they were nice to me and allowed me to escort them places. I found that these totally platonic relationships with women who deserved to be put on a pedestal for all of their feminine attributes was euphoric, and I must say all my father’s many lessons naturally and effortlessly kicked into gear while around them. Certain women have a way of civilizing men. But for women, we men would live in caves, never change our underwear and beat each other with clubs. For civilizing us, men have the duty to protect and honor women. It’s a nice arrangement. It’s a social contract. I am sure the Count would agree.
The Count had a daughter. He naturally loved her, was indeed devoted to her, but more importantly he illustrated the best qualities of manhood by just being himself. Again, I thought of my daughters. Fathers have many roles, one of which is to be an example to daughters of the type of man they should marry. Sometimes we teach. I remember once when my daughter Ella was 16, I met her for dinner, and before I could hold the chair out for her, she sat down. Incensed, I stood up and said ”you get your ass out of that chair and you stand there and wait for me to hold the chair for you.” I then told her “as a woman, you have to demand respect or else you will never receive it. Never sit down until he holds the chair for you.”
Being a gentleman is living up to an ideal. Adhering to the rules of civility is an exercise in self-worth. A woman should not have to walk to her car unescorted at night. See an elderly lady at the grocery store and offer to carry her bags. Always defer to your elders, offer the older gentleman your seat on the bus or train. Always convey a pleasantry to the passerby on the street. There are a million such niceties. Unfortunately, many children grow up without fathers and this is likely the biggest contributor to the coarseness of present society.
The Count’s world is a better world. The Rules of Civility are much like a market economy. They are born out of convention where the market of proper responses to trillions of instances of human behavior has organically created a societal rule. Convention operates outside of government mandated laws. It works because it is the culmination of generations of thoughtfulness. This is how tradition enters the world and why honoring tradition has such great merit.
Everyone loves the Count, and why not, he is thoughtful, considerate and honorable. I appreciate the author’s sparse references to the horrors of the Soviet Union. Indeed, he reminded me of Russian author Anton Chekhov in his use of the understatement. In doing so, he subtlety contrasts the great dichotomy of a society rooted in Judeo-Christian ethics and one that was created by evil to dismantle the former. To which I say “Well Done.”
And like Mr. Chekhov, I hope I have elicited your interest in the book without being overly descriptive. It aroused pleasant emotions in me, and perhaps a book’s ability to do so makes it a “good book,” instead of just a “book.”