My friends, I have a special treat for you today. I am here to introduce you to the inestimable majesty that is Amor Towles’ newest novel, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW.
I have written before that life often hands you the book you most need at exactly the time you most need it, and I find it entirely too coincidental that life has handed me this book at this particular juncture in my life. Among other topics, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW highlights the finer points of wine, food, and hospitality – accompanied by a hefty dose of literature, music, high culture, and the shifting winds of politics. And at this moment in my life, when am re-entering the world of fine dining and preparing for my entry into the competitive world of traditional publishing, this book has revealed to me just how stimulating and vital great food, great drinks, and great service truly are.
A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW is, in essence, a work of historical fiction, though it could be called literary fiction as well. It takes place in – you guessed it – Moscow, between the years of 1922 and 1954. The book traces a series of events beginning with Count Alexander Ilych Rostov’s house arrest at the Metropol Hotel, the premiere hotel in Moscow, where Rostov has been living for the last four years. Because the Count has spent his life engaged in the pastimes of a gentleman, he is intimately acquainted with the charms of fine wine, great food, and the details of excellent service. As his house arrest proceeds, he eventually takes a position as the Headwaiter at the Boyarsky, the pre-eminent restaurant in Moscow, which happens to be “tucked discreetly into the northeast corner of the hotel’s second floor.”
The Metropol Hotel, and within it the Boyarsky as well as the first-floor restaurant known affectionately to the Count as the Piazza that serves as “an extension of [Moscow],” comprise the bars of the Count’s prison, and what a prison it must be. Surely in all of history there have been no other circumstances wherein a group of hotel employees would cheer the announcement that one of their favorite patrons has been condemned to spend the rest of his life between the walls of their hotel.
As the Headwaiter of the Boyarsky, the Count is able to use his skills and his imprisonment to the advantage of all, delivering the high-quality service the Boyarsky’s clientele have come to expect, putting his aristocratic background to the service of the People and the Party, and putting an end to his hours of boredom engaged in the usual pastimes of a gentleman – “Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole,” – now relegated to the dustbin of history.
(I loved in particular the detail that the Count’s familial manor home, where he engaged in these gentlemanly behaviors, was named Idlehour, succinctly articulating the types of activities one would be expected to engage in within its walls.)
But as a resident of the finest hotel in Moscow and an employee of that “fabled retreat on the second floor,” the Count bears witness to the shifting tides of history, as evidenced by the hotel’s guests, its policies, and its employees. The most influential person in the book is not the Count himself, but a young girl he meets early in his house arrest: Nina Kulikova. The gifts Nina gives to the Count can be said to be the key drivers of the plot: First, she restores to him his innocent curiosity and exploratory instincts. Then, in the second half, she bequeaths to him the care and tutelage of her daughter Sofia. And finally, before she sets out into the world as a young woman of charm and diligence, she gifts him a master pass-key to the Metropol hotel.
And boy, does that key ever come in handy.
Enough, now, about the plot. I can tell you no more without giving it away. Instead, I wish to share with you some exemplary quotes from the book, which will hopefully give you an idea of the culture, finesse, and delicacy that Mr. Towles has bequeathed to all of us in the character of the Count and, more broadly, in this fantastic tome.
An excerpt from one of the Count’s early interactions with Nina Kulikova, which compares the details of fine dining to the details of a symphony:
There was an assortment of utensils, each of which had been designed with the greatest of care to serve a single culinary purpose. From among them, Nina picked up what looked like a delicate spade with a plunger and an ivory handle. Depressing the lever, Nina watched as the two opposing blades opened and shut, then she looked to the Count in wonder.
“An asparagus server,” he explained.
“Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?”
“Does an orchestra need a bassoon?”
A favorite passage of mine, which helps to explain the wonderful experience of great service, comes from Towles’ introduction to Andrey Duras, the maitre d’ of the Boyarsky:
Having just led a group of women to their table, for instance, Andrey seemed to pull back their chairs all at once. When one of the ladies produced a cigarette, he had a lighter in one hand and was guarding the flame with the other…And when the woman holding the wine list asked for a recommendation, he didn’t point to the 1900 Bordeaux – at least not in the Teutonic sense. Rather, he slightly extended his index finger in a manner reminiscent of that gesture on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling with which the Prime Mover transmitted the spark of life. Then, excusing himself with a bow, he crossed the room and went through the kitchen door.
Finally, a passage of exquisite description, in which the Triumvirate – that is, the Count, the Boyarsky’s chef de cuisine Emile Zhukhovsky, and maitre d’ Duras, have managed to procure all the necessary ingredients to prepare bouillabaisse, several of which are now banned or unobtainable as a result of the censorious tendencies of the Bolsheviks.
At one in the morning, the conspirators took their seats. On the table before them were a single candle, a loaf of bread, a bottle of rose, and three bowls of Bouillabaisse. […]
Fully aware that he was being watched, the Count closed his eyes to attend more closely to his impressions.
How to describe it?
One first tastes the broth – that simmered distillation of fish bones, fennel, and tomatoes, with their hearty suggestions of Provence. One then savors the tender flakes of haddock and the briny resilience of the mussels, which have been purchased on the docks from the fisherman. One marvels at the boldness of the oranges arriving from Spain and the absinthe poured in the taverns. And all of these various impressions are somehow collected, composed, and brightened by the saffron – that essence of summer sun which, having been harvested in the hills of Greece and packed by mule to Athens, has been sailed across the Mediterranean in a felucca. In other words, with the very first spoonful one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille – where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life.
The count opened his eyes.
“Magnifique,” he said.
Andrey, who had put down his spoon, brought his elegant hands together in a respectful show of silent applause.
Beaming, the chef bowed to his friends and then joined them in their long-awaited meal.
If this is not enough to (quite literally) whet your appetite, I humbly suggest you return to Applebees and cheap thrillers and leave this book where it belongs. If, on the contrary, you are now as thirsty as I am for an excellent bottle of wine, a fine meal, and charming, intelligent company, I strongly recommend you seek this book out with all appropriate haste. If you have read this book, please leave me a comment to let me know what you thought!
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