- - Sunday, September 18, 2016


By Amor Towles

Viking, $27, 480 pages

The crime of Count Alexander Rostov is that he is an unrepentant aristocrat in the bloody aftermath of the Russian revolution. His punishment as imposed by a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 is lifetime house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. If he leaves the hotel, he is warned, he will be shot. It is only because he has to his credit a revolutionary poem that he hasn’t already been stood up against a wall.

Ironically the tribunal has done the count a great favor. He returns to the most elegant hotel in Moscow, which retains its magnificence because the revolutionaries realize that they need at least a shred of what once was to bring outsiders back to the wreckage that is Moscow. Count Rostov happily resumes residence in the Metropol, although not in his previous luxurious suite. Assigned to a 100-square-foot attic, the count philosophically turns it into a charming new home for the next few decades. And in the count, Amor Towles has created a magnificent literary character, a man of intelligence, humor, charm and resilience.

The count adjusts to the trauma of his new life although it has to be said that the Metropol at its worst is probably an improvement on most lodgings at their best. He accepts his new world where he is no longer addressed as Your Excellency, and even relinquishes small privileges. For example, when a customer in the hotel barber shop chops off half his luxuriant mustache because of an unfair place in line, the count does not make a fuss. He looks firmly at the barber, whom he has known for half a century and says, “Clean shave.” He becomes friends with Marina the hotel seamstress who becomes accustomed to sewing up the seams in his pants that he has split while wandering to forbidden locations in the hotel. Most charming is a description of how he doubles the size of his tiny attic by kicking through a closet or two to build himself a study where he can keep his high-backed chairs and his father’s twice tolling clock.

Mr. Towles is a masterful writer with a talent for confuting up scenes of the past and present and bringing them into remarkable focus. He leaves no doubt about the terror that lives beyond the exotic setting of the hotel, and the count is a constant demonstration of how to transcend what he can no longer control. He becomes a head waiter in the beautiful dining room with as much panache as when he patronized it as a customer. It is more than a hotel and the count is more than a customer. He even succeeds in conducting a long-term affair with a beautiful actress, noting delicately the changes in this “willowy woman, her hair tinged with gray.” And he watches with a tinge of mourning how little Nina grows up to follow the savagery of the Bolshevik regime, then goes on to celebrate his care and affection for Sofia, the lovely young musician who becomes his cherished daughter and a memory of her lost mother.

The world goes on beyond and around the Metropol, and the irresistible count moves on too, becoming part of the group of international intelligence operatives and developing relationships that hazard his existence but that he cannot refuse. He is a ghost from a marvelous past and a home called Idlehour, and the perils of his lifestyle never hamper how he lives or how he thinks. He remembers what his father told him about the fate of the moths of Manchester and he ruminates about the tragedies to be found in Russia and America. He contends that the Russians were “unusually adept at destroying that which they have created yet concedes that the destruction of monuments and masterpieces were “essential to the progress of a nation.” On a note of eccentricity the count expresses his admiration for the character of Humphrey Bogart in the classic film “Casablanca,” describing him as “a man of intent.” He watches the old film and follows its plot, and the reader has faith that the count possesses some of the qualities he admires in Bogart. Of course he will survive and of course he will escape, with a final gesture of kicking over a bottle of Vichy water.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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