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I’ve enjoyed other books where the captivating and seemingly effortless storytelling is actually carefully and comprehensively crafted.I’ve loved other charming and clever heroes who seem almost too good to be true.I’ve read other books that are hugely enjoyable and also have great literary merit.But I rarely encounter one volume that combines them all.This is such a book.
The story is long in time and small in place: a road movie without a road. In 1922, Count Rostov is put on trial as the author of a seditious poem. He’s sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s glamorous Metropol Hotel, where he’s been living for nearly four years, but demoted from his lavish suite to a tiny attic room. If he steps outside the hotel, he’ll be shot. By 1954, he’s still living there, but has long been a member of staff.
“P”The Count realises early on that the Bolsheviks will succumb to lavish ceremonies and much else they claim to decry.“[They] clamor about the world’s oldest problems in its newest nomenclature.”He astutely observes decades of political upheavals, and those who instigate them, but as he is confined to the hotel, the true horror of the revolution is at one remove. It’s also diluted by occasional quasi fantastical flourishes. He is unfailingly charming, and to some extent, he continues to live a charmed life. Further intrigue comes from a small but regular stream of international guests.
Towles wastes nothing. Every item, person, event, and glance serves a later purpose: Chekhov’s Gun dialled to eleven, with a veritable fusillade in the final pages. Some of the individual chapters could stand as perfectly formed short stories, complete with character development, a gentle plot turning dramatic, all seasoned with humour and profundity, and each little incident proving significant.
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It’s a character-based book, including intelligent and independently-minded women taking control at key moments, plus the odd, wry footnote. Then, in the final section, plot comes seamlessly, forcefully, and nail-bitingly to the fore. That change echoes earlier ideas, especially chains of events and the passage of time:“Life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds… the manifestations of a thousand transitions./p>
I adore Count Alexander Rostov. He is unfailingly kind, patient, polite, erudite, generous, witty, meticulous, urbane, cultured, unflappable, adaptable, empathetic, discreet, ingenious, and honourable. He’s respectful to women, interested in children, kind to animals, nostalgic about apples, and believes meteorology is destiny. He could be infuriatingly perfect and sanctimonious, but instead, he’s delightful and plausible.
“L”Most usefully, he is pragmatic about the limitations imposed on him and appreciates the smallest luxuries. He would agree with Iris Murdoch that “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats”.
The elegant phrasing, coupled with the superb storytelling and vivid characters, make the mentions of literary greats, along with weighty historical, political, and philosophical ideas as digestible as the very best bouillabaisse. It’s like puréeing vegetables to smuggle them into the meal of a reluctant child. (Minor characters tend towards amusing caricatures, but the main protagonists are fully rounded and develop over the years.)
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“The Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home… There is no beginning anew.”I read this in the second year of the Covid pandemic, when many of us have had spells of near house arrest under threat of possible death. Would I swap my lockdown for the Count’s? Only if I could spend it in his company.
“The sort of colorful incident that an international hotel should aspire to have as part of its lore.”From the start, I was reminded of my favourite film, The Grand Budapest Hotel:
What have the Russians ever done for us? A German hotel guest claims the only thing Russia gave the west was vodka. The Count adds Chekhov (master of the short story), Tolstoy (master of the long), act I scene I of the Nutcracker (setting the mood for Christmas), and caviar. Not as funny as Monty Python’s famous question in The Life of Brian, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, but just as true. I would add matryoshka dolls, not as souvenirs, but for their use in narrative arcs and literary analysis. However, in this particular book, set in a hotel where there are “doors behind doors”, such dolls have a literal and metaphorical role.
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Every word of the many chapter titles starts with “A”. On his website, Towles says he doesn’t know why. But in a recent BBC radio interview, he said “I wanted to signal to the reader… it is to some degree a magical tale”.
A 16-hour TV adaptation for Apple+ TV is in the pipeline. Better than a two-hour film, but Kenneth Branagh is too h theatrical for the Count. If you want to watch it, I strongly suggest reading the book first or not at all. Branagh is always memorable: if you see the film first, you will only ever see and hear the Count as Branagh, and that would be a mere shadow of Towles’ creation.
• “If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”
• “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.”
• “The Countess was one of those dowagers whose natural independence of mind, authority of age, and impatience with the petty made her the ally of all irreverent youth.”
• “For centuries champagne has been used to launch marriages and ships. Most assume this is because the drink is so intrinsically celebratory; but, in fact, it is used at the onset of these dangerous enterprises because it so capably boosts one’s resolve.”
• “The Confederacy of the Humbled… For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offence.”
• “I’ll tell you what is convenient… To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences… and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.
• “One can revisit the past quite pleasantly, as long as one does so expecting nearly every aspect of it to have changed.”