Amor Towles: A gentleman in New York
In the last month, Amor Towles says, he’s been getting notes from readers. Most of them had some version of this sentiment to share: “I’m going to have to deal with the Trump presidency the way that Count Rostov dealt with the Soviets.” These notes were, obviously, mostly from liberals.
Count Rostov is the protagonist of Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow.” In the opening pages of the book, Rostov finds himself before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. The year is 1922. As well as being a former aristocrat, Rostov is also a poet. He is not a nakedly political one, sympathetic to the ideals of communism but not a subscriber to the iteration unfolding before him. Still, in the verse the reader gets to see, Rostov poses existential questions about Soviet rule: “Well, where is our purpose now?”
In merely asking the question, the commissariat authorities tell Rostov, he has identified himself as one who “has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class — and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” But Rostov is spared, on one condition. He must remain within the four walls of the Hotel Metropol, a real Moscow hotel where the fictional Rostov had been living since the revolution. If he sets foot outside, he will be shot. The book tracks this somewhat gilded variety of political imprisonment over 30 years.
Meeting Towles at his brownstone in Gramercy Park, a tony neighborhood of Manhattan, one is struck by certain parallels to the story in his novel. Of course, he isn’t any kind of political dissident. Towles is a graduate of Yale and Stanford, where he studied literature. But before he broke through with his 2011 hit novel “The Rules of Civility,” Towles worked in finance for more than 20 years. So his home bears evidence that he shares Rostov’s love of fine surroundings. For example, Towles writes in a wood-paneled study that looks straight out of a screenwriter’s ideal of a writer’s study: wood paneled-walls, a glass book case, interesting curios displayed everywhere.
He also, even as a writer, clearly lives a very ordered, disciplined existence not unlike the routine he describes Rostov undertaking in the book. As we talk about his process, he pulls from a file the first notes he made for “A Gentleman in Moscow” from a drawer. “Here it is. I was in a hotel. This was in the Hotel Richemond in Geneva, September 2009,” he says, as he pulls a neat chart of years by which he planned to organize the chapters from a plastic sleeve. It’s written on hotel stationary, and carefully dated.
Despite the similarities, Towles says he isn’t much like Rostov. “I think that every individual you invent in narrative work you have to have some root in who that person is. That may be an aspect of yourself, it may be an aspect of something that you like, that you don’t like. It may be an aspect that you wish you had. Maybe something you admire in another person. I used to look up at this guy a little bit. This big portrait,” he says, pointing at a portrait of friendly looking man in an 18th century frock coat. “I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s kind of like that, maybe.’” The painting, Towles tells me, is actually of an obscure French archaeologist and anthropologist, acquired at an estate sale like most of the other art in the room.
Released in May, “A Gentleman in Moscow” has sold steadily all year and was the subject of glowing reviews. But it had never occurred to Towles that it could be a timely book. As as he points out, “It was not timely in May.” A man of elegant manners, one can tell Towles isn’t totally at ease talking about the new resonance Trump’s election cast over his book. But he does have a few ideas about what people might want to draw from it as they try to figure out their own place in a new political atmosphere.
“We study, as Americans, the extreme aspects of repression under the Stalinist era. We’re focused on them,” he says, carefully. “The vast majority of Russian citizens, it was a much softer type of being disconcerted. Do you know what I mean? Not everybody went to prison. Not everyone was executed. That was a minority. Everyone else, it was more like you didn’t always have what you wanted; you couldn’t do the job you wanted; you couldn’t say what you wanted; the country was going in a direction you didn’t like. Which certainly a portion of America is going to feel in the coming years, one way or another.”
In writing a book set in Soviet Russia, Towles says, he was turning to a subject he had already read a lot about, though he says he did not do much “applied research.” He does not consider himself a “historical novelist,” per se, he tells me. “I just write novels.” His eye is on more general themes. “Characterization, theme, psychology, the poetry of the language are primary ahead of time and place,” he says.
However inadvertently, though, Towles has written a book about the notion of individual resistance. In Rostov’s rather idiosyncratic experience of Soviet Russia, very little of which involves what you could call direct political engagement, he is still actively resisting the Soviet regime. It’s simply that, being locked into one building, he does so by savoring smaller pleasures: good wine, good food, friendships of long standing and even, eventually, parenthood.
Towles catalogs these pleasures endlessly in the book, to the point where one suspects he somewhat shares Rostov’s nostalgia for the aristocratic era. Towles admits this. “Of course, you wouldn’t want to re-create the era of aristocracy; it was a totally unfair era. The finer aspects of it were admirable, and so there’s nostalgia for that: the behavior, the values, the cultural sensitivities.
“I knew the hottest spot for the book would be someone who really knows a good deal about Russian history and cares about Russian history, who feels that the book does not do justice to the crimes that were committed in the era,” Towles says. But he ran the risk because he believes that it is possible for people in repressive regimes to enjoy art, regardless of circumstances. To think otherwise, he says, “belittles the courage and the pride of the average citizen.”
Towles also points to an observation the Count makes to one of the officials who is supervising his imprisonment, someone who admires how well Rostov has adapted to his circumstances: “As both a student of history and a man devoted to living in the present, I admit that I do not spend a lot of time imagining how things might otherwise have been. But I do like to think there is a difference between being resigned to a situation and reconciled to it.”
Dean’s book, “Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion,” will be published in 2017.
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