The Man Behind the Gentleman
My town library invited bestselling author Amor Towles to speak at its annual fundraiser and luncheon. He made a living in finance for decades before he began writing seriously. Fiction and story were always a part of his life, a dream of his, now a reality. He was not effeminate, but smaller in stature in a tailored light gray suit and blue tie. He wore glasses and spoke with his hands, wrists extended beyond white cuffs. The look was a bit Tom Wolfe, hair graying, clean shaven, unlike earlier photos with a scraggy writerly beard. Ok, no signature hat or kerchief, but he had a cleft chin and dark eyes that seemed to take everything in.
I enjoyed his first book, Rules of Civility, a Jazz Age novel set in Manhattan. The Gentleman in Moscow did not engage me the same way, and I found the middle a bit heavy and slow. The writing was sharp, however, with witty repartee, and moving scenes and passages. The gentleman protagonist Count Rostov was likable, endearing even, especially as he quickly adapted to his loss of title and all that went with it, after his appearance before the People’s Commissariat in June 1922.
Towles spoke at the luncheon for the better part of an hour, but not about the book. He introduced himself and talked about the history of this time period in Russia and the role of the Metropol Hotel, because the setting in the grand building dominates the story, indeed it is a character itself. His talk was fascinating for the historically bent, and like many speaking engagements, as erudite as guests may be or presume to be, many had not read the book. I noticed a few drooping eyes and yawning mouths. He did not allow for spoilers. An unsuspecting guest asked about the ending, and he poo poo’d the question. I don’t believe the author dined with us, but he had set up a book signing table and smiled for reader selfies. The organizer of the event, an intelligent and social woman of some stature, introduced him and returned to the dais to thank him at the end of his speech. He asked her, albeit in jest, to be seated. “I’m not done yet. I mentioned earlier, I have a story to tell.” He looked at her to ask if it was OK, which of course it was, he had the mic. Not sure she’d ever been so instructed before such a large audience, she smiled in good stead. He took a few questions and by the time my own questions bubbled up, he was finished with the Q and A.
I wanted to ask Towles about the inspiration for the characters, especially because the young Nina reminded me of Eloise at the Plaza Hotel in New York. He mentioned his young daughters and his travel as a businessmen to notable hotels around the globe, when on a return visit to Switzerland after many annual visits, he noticed the same characters there. That was the genesis of the novel. The character Nina was a nine year old Rostov met early in the story and much of the inspiration was drawn from Towles’ own nine year old daughter. He is also a plotter, or outliner, as he shared. He spent a year writing a 40 page outline before sitting down to write. The novel, he believed, was like a symphony with various parts and movements, all orchestrated and coming together to create a moving whole. My second question I asked him later, personally.
For the Love of A
Amor as a name brought to mind many things, but not what I imagined. Towles’ life, as related in this interview, was rather hum-drum and his parents were not musical. Here he explained the origins of his first name.
I took my copy of the book to be signed and Amor also stamped it with a Moscow image. I asked him about the chapter titles, from the initial letter, Appearance before the tribunal, Ambassador, to the Appointment and Arrival through to the Apotheoses in the fifth book, and the Afterword, never a respite for A. He smiled, a question he must get often, and said there was no reason.
So I offered my own, of course. “It’s a stasis, like Rostov, his confinement to the hotel for the remainder of his days, he grows personally, but he cannot leave. The As change and the words progress in a fashion, but never advance to the next letter. I did suggest to Amor, that with the conclusion, he could have reasonably titled the heading with a B or even Z. A laugh from him then.
“That’s a good reason,” he said .
I told him I was going to grad school for my MFA in writing, and we chatted. And as I reflected on the day, I realized something about Amor and the letter A. It’s about him, his own name. The signature reveals a lot, handwriting experts will argue, and his has four letters, with a very pronounced one. See for yourself.
Writers are a narcissistic and solitary lot, and I can attest to the truth in that. The world is by definition perceived, defined, imagined, and envisioned through their filters and lens of experience and beliefs.
The novel, like any book, is about the author. A for Amor and A for author.
DC7 – Letters to My Oldest Child (Dear Cara #7)
************ SPOILER ALERT ****************
I included two passages which I shared with my teenage daughter who left for college this summer. We are both Potter Heads, book nuts, and bibliophiles. Our idea of fun is to go into New York City and spend a day perusing the 18 miles of shelves at the The Strand book store by Union Square. Here is the excerpt of DC7, which I sent her after reading this novel.
Anyway, the story is set in Moscow 1920s when Bolsheviks took over, so the aristocrat Count Rostov is sentenced to ‘house arrest’ in the hotel Metropol because he had once written a poem in favor of the people (this is generous otherwise he would have been killed). A young girl Nina befriends him and over the years she marries and joins the commune and returns with her daughter, who she leaves with him (Rostov). The story centers around his life in the hotel and the grand things that continue to happen over the revolution and into the 1950s. The girl grows up and is an exceptional musician, spending her young life with Count Rostov in the hotel, playing the piano and learning from the best conductor in Moscow. Not sure the book works as a whole, but some powerful scenes and passages resonated with me. So I’m sharing two with you as a musician yourself and a young person gone off into the world. Here the count hears her play piano for the first time after she has been studying with the conductor while he has been working in the restaurant as a waiter. He didn’t know she was taking lessons.
On one level he was astonished by the revelation that Sofia could play the piano at all, on another, that she tackled the primary and subordinate melodies with such skill. But what was truly astonishing was the sensitivity of her musical expression. One could spend a lifetime mastering the technical aspects of the piano and never achieve a state of musical expression – that alchemy by which the performer not only comprehends the sentiments of the composer, but somehow communicates them to her audiences through the manner of her play. (p. 325, ref her piece Chopin Opus 9, Number 2 in E Flat Major)
This is a favorite nocturne I play and the author Amor Towles wrote this perfectly. I spent a lifetime learning the notes and technical aspects, the music, however, that is the heart of if all. And rarely, have I created such beauty. Here’s the thing, we live for that, true beauty and excellence and in whatever is, a Chopin nocturne, a masterful volleyball tiebreaker, or a Sandhurst competition when it might just all come together. It doesn’t happen often, and you may not ever reach the summit, but you can know you can sleep for trying.
The second book passage is lovely because I understand it all too personally now, not just intellectually but because I’m living it. The Count works on her escape, every detail and necessity needed to get passage from her joining the Russian conservatory and her escape in Paris to the American embassy. He has counted down the days until her departure and worked through each step with her. He knows when she leaves for Paris to perform, she will seek asylum and freedom in the American embassy and will never see her again, the person who has come to be his daughter. He is holed up in the hotel in the Metropol for decades where he has made a life for himself and her, who he has taken in as his own child. He reads often in his free time and begun to read the essays of Montaigne, considered the father of the essay and someone I so love myself. I need to read more. The last evening before she leaves from the hotel and his life, he thinks carefully about all the things he has done every day up to that point, raising her and what he chooses to share.
Showing a sense of personal restraint that was almost out of character, the Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness. But when it came to expressing admissions of heartache, the Count had not held back. He told her exactly how sad he would be in her absence, and yet, how joyful he would feel at the slightest thought of her grand adventure.
Why was the Count so careful to ensure that all of this was covered on the night before Sofia’s journey? Because well he knew that when one is traveling abroad for the first time, one does not wish to look back on laborsome instructions, weighty advice, or tearful sentiments. Like the memory of the simple soup, when one is homesick what one will find most comforting to recall are those lighthearted little stories that have been told a thousand times before. (p. 419)
So these too I share with you. Master your circumstances. Cheerfulness is a choice. And When times are tough, there is always music, reading, great masters you haven’t yet met on the page, you can visit them anywhere, in any room, and they have wisdom and life experiences and stories to share across the ages and from cultures the world over. And lucky, you are, says Yoda, if you have friends. Good people, to enjoy and spend time with, to join you on the journey.