A Gentleman in Moscow: a negative review
Much as how Trump is a poor man’s idea of a rich man, the titular gentleman of A Gentleman in Moscow is a plebeian’s idea of an aristocrat, and simultaneously, an American’s idea of a Russian.
The premise of the novel is that Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, unlike most of his aristocratic brethren who were either shot to death or forced to flee, is placed under house arrest in a fancy hotel. It conveniently enables the author, Amor Towles, to insulate his character from any of the consequences one might reasonably expect from being a Russian aristocrat during Stalinist Russia, and to nimbly shirk the burden of doing any of the research someone with no knowledge of Stalinist Russia might be expected to have to do in order to write a convincing book about Stalinist Russia.
I am ignorant of Russian history and culture. Amusingly enough, that is how I can tell Towles did no research. When someone as placidly ignorant as I am can recognize every single Russian cultural reference made, and can even spot the improperly deployed patronymics, nicknames, and surnames, it is certain that Towles has no more knowledge than I–in fact, given how glaringly bad the Russian names are, I’d wager I even know more. (It also enrages me that Towles thought Bulgakov was a poet. I suffered the whole time I was reading The Master and Margarita, and I can tell you that regardless of his other charms, Bulgakov was no poet.)
I would be able to overlook the lack of Russianness if the book itself weren’t so slight and incoherent. Here is an example of what I mean–at the very beginning of the book, the good count bounces up and down on a bed to gauge the key of the bedsprings, apparently G Major. How charming. Surely, he is someone of significant musical talent. But does his musical ability show up again in the novel? No. Towles wrote that scene as a one-off cheap trick. The book is essentially a long string of these, going nowhere.
Towles also likes to interrupt his narrative with pretentious disquisitions like this: “That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only our heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love.” This last clause is a lot like saying, “the existence of apples refutes oranges,” or, “red refutes green.” The permanence of heartbreak is not an argument, and neither is the ephemerality of love, and therefore neither concept can refute the other. The effect of all these little verbal missteps is to produce the kind of wince my musician friends get whenever I sing around them.
But I don’t hate this book because it has no plot and no verisimilitude. I have read books with no plot before, and enjoyed them greatly, and if I could mainline crappy fantasy books, I would. The problem with this book is that it has no vision, beyond a nostalgic admiration for the aristocracy. An admiration so un-American, that I wish there were some committee of subversive literature I could report this book to.