“A Gentleman in Moscow,” is the title of Amor Towles’ second novel. The book, published in 2016, is fantastically written, building on the author’s beautiful writing style from his first novel, “The Rules of Civility.” Whereas that novel took place in one year centering on an up-and-coming youthful woman, this novel spans thirty years inspecting the life of a much older male aristocrat. The setting exits the familiar New York City landscape and transports the reader to Russia from 1922 through 1952. However, although one might expect a sweeping run through the Russian landscape, this is an unusual setting in that the whole novel is set in Moscow inside the Metropol hotel – a real hotel still open today – where the main character has been placed on house arrest.
The whole novel is different from the first in so many ways, but one holdover is the author’s unexpected use of time. In the first novel he bookended with New Years Eves, with each chapter succeeding in sync with his writing a chapter every two weeks giving it twenty six chapters. In this novel, he plays with the idea of time in that he builds up through the days, weeks, months, and years in the first half of the novel, then flips and counts down in the same units until the very end. He calls it an accordion structure. The intricacy of the timing of this novel is impressive as explained by the author in great detail on his Q & A.
His creative use of time and organization in his writing are representative of the thought he must give to each in life. He recognizes the finite quantity of time and life we are all given and plays with that concept in his writing and reading. For example, at some point and for some reason that he only has a certain number of years left to live and read. Facing that fact, he decided he wanted to intentionally read great authors. To do this, he needed to organize himself. He and three other friends have done just that forming a monthly book group, choosing authors and great novels on a monthly basis, and ultimately teaching themselves and learning so much through reading particularly chosen authors and great books. What a novel idea for analyzing authors and an amazing way to study literature. What is coincidental is that I chose this book many years ago for my book club selection, not for the reasons that he gave, but for my love of the book itself. Now, I can see the added value he describes of reading and studying one author’s writing in succession.
His decision to write about Russia in this novel is impressive as well. This is a nation, culture, and history I would like to understand better. I admire him for his foundational knowledge, having said he read many Russian authors in his twenties, and the fearlessness to write about a part of history and world that intimidates me. His approach to tackle this foreign land in his writing is much like his creating his reading group.
This all led me to reflect on these two ideas:
- How much world history do I really know?
- What great books do I want to read/still need to read?
I realized this week looking back at my education that my love of history is almost solely based in American History. I had so many classes in grammar school and high school that revolved around various points in America’s history, but only two classes focused outside the U.S. In high school that included World History and 20th century European History. With a limited set of non-U.S. history courses in high school, various social studies classes in college, and all of my law school classes focused on the American legal system, I realize now this is a deficit I want to address.
Overlapping with this goal, is answering the question: what great books do I want to read? Having searched for recommended lists, I have found that what I have not read also coincides with history I may not know. So this endeavor could be beneficial on both fronts. I will be reading more Russian authors based on the fact that there are those that are considered classics, and also because of, “The Gentleman in Moscow.” I will start with, “Anna Karenina,” which I have wanted to read for many years. What am I waiting for? Next will be, “The Odyssey,” followed by, “Ulysses.” This is perfect because while reading Amor Towles’s next book, “The Lincoln Highway,” I was at a loss when introduced to a fascinating character named, Ulysses, but quickly caught on to his use of the character. I am inspired to keep reading both literature and history to support my writing.
© 2022 Megan Davia Mikhail