Sitting over a cappuccino in Caffe Reggio in New York’s Greenwich Village, listening to the novelist Amor Towles speak about the Russian Revolution, it’s not difficult to imagine that this scene is taking place half a century ago. Not much has changed at Caffe Reggio since its opening in 1927, and Towles moves with such ease among Anton Chekhov, Edith Wharton, and current international affairs that he seems to embody the kind of adroit conversationalist who, we like to complain, is lacking from our abbreviation-happy era. But, as Towles points out, “each generation has its own codes for social etiquette”—of which codes he is an attentive observer.
Towles is just as likely to touch on Mark Zuckerberg’s strategic wardrobe—“A billionaire in sweats!”—as the latest Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of the Russian classics. And although Towles has been writing fiction his whole life, he spent two decades working in finance before publishing his first novel, Rules of Civility, with Viking in 2011. A Gentleman in Moscow, his new novel, is due out from Viking in September.
The gentleman of the title, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, “comes from a 19th-century world, and has a 19th-century sensibility,” Towles explains. As the novel begins, Rostov is a man dangerously out of step with his time. A poet and duelist in his youth, concerned with matters of honor and selecting an appropriate dinner wine, the charming count is the prototypical Russian aristocrat. When he returns to Moscow from Paris after the 1917 Bolshevik coup, the only thing that keeps him from being executed like many other members of the aristocracy is a poem published under his name in 1913, which is judged to be full of revolutionary sympathy. Instead of being shot, the count is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s luxurious Hotel Metropol, indefinitely.
“From 1905, when it opened, to 1950, it’s extraordinary what has happened inside that hotel,” Towles says. Built to rival the best hotels of Europe, the Metropol still stands in the center of Moscow, a short walk from Red Square, diagonally across from the Bolshoi Theatre. Towles notes: “During the October Revolution, imperial forces used the Metropol as a bastion to defend the Kremlin, and the Bolsheviks were in the street firing at the hotel. Every single window was shot out. When the great American writer John Reed arrived in Moscow and went to find a place to stay—in the midst of the revolution—the captain of the Metropol told him, ‘We do have a room for you—as long you don’t mind fresh air.’ ”
Reed wasn’t the Metropol’s most storied visitor for long. Towles, who was born and raised near Boston, has visited Russia and stayed at the Metropol himself, but in his research he drew most heavily on the writings of other notable Metropol guests. The hotel was full of them: the Bolsheviks, Towles says, in its efforts to establish diplomatic relations with other governments, didn’t want to advertise the direness of postrevolutionary conditions in Russia. “So the Metropol very quickly had food and liquor and music that nobody else had,” he adds. “It became, in the imagination of many Russians, this unattainable, amazing place. It shows up in the literature—Children of the Arbat, The Master and Margarita.” Foreign visitors included Lillian Hellman, John Steinbeck, New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury—and, in Towles’s fiction, not a few representatives of foreign intelligence.
In the course of writing the novel, Towles was doing intelligence-type work himself. That doesn’t mean he was snooping around the Metropol—the present-day hotel staff were more than happy to let him “do a little behind-the-curtain exploration” during his stay there. Instead, it was a challenge for him to decide which aspects of the hotel’s history to include in Rostov’s story, which spans more than 30 years.
Rostov, Towles says, “is vaulted forward by the revolution into this modern thing.” He adds: “Russia vaulted forward dramatically in every sphere, not just politically. In the decades after the revolution, Russia was among the most modern of the European nations in ways that we don’t think about—it immediately became a secular nation, created equal rights for women, made it easy to get divorced, and made an effort to industrialize.”
As Rostov ingeniously makes a place for himself at the Metropol, Towles notes that the novel, too, shifts: “The count is evolving, but the narrative style is also evolving, and you’re moving from Tolstoy toward Casablanca in narrative form.”
It’s important to recognize, Towles says, that Russia’s “vaulting forward came at a great cost to human life.” Individual lives, rather than broad historical epochs, are what interest him. After a first draft, which took him a year and a half to write, Towles revised A Gentleman in Moscow “three times in two years, from beginning to end.” With each revision, he brought out the patterns and complexities of individual characters. “Part of the editing process is bringing someone to greater life,” he explains.
The same sentiment is borne out in the novel. “What can a first impression tell us about anyone?” Towles asks in the book. “Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration.”
By considering and reconsidering his characters, Towles has escaped the pitfall of many a historical novel—a ponderous recitation of facts and dates. The Wall Street Journal described Rules of Civility as “a very good... sharp, sure-handed evocation of Manhattan in the late ’30s.” Towles is drawn to the social worlds of cities in flux. “All the historical elements should feel organic to the story but not hammered down to serve a purpose,” he says. “I’m not writing about the Depression or Soviet Russia. My books are both about an individual who’s transforming in a broader context of social transformation.”
Has Towles himself been transformed in the writing of A Gentleman in Moscow? The novel once included several pages of a separate, never-published first manuscript, also set in Russia, but those pages didn’t make it into the book. Instead, Towles says, the experience of reading major Russian writers with a small group of friends “has been a much bigger influence and an infusion of helpful information and insight.”
Towles’s own graduate-student past has also subtly informed the book, linking art and life in the kind of pattern novelists dream about. In a library at Stanford, where he studied, Towles happened upon a collection of Chekhov’s correspondence and read a letter the playwright sent to his sister from Berlin. “The footnote said that in the Soviet edition, the line about Berlin’s excellent bread was expurgated, presumably because of that compliment. I read that in 1988. I xeroxed it, I put it in a file, and it stayed with me. It is one of the seeds of my interest in 20th-century Russia. The Communist government—they viewed that as dangerous, even though all it said was that the bread in Berlin was delicious. But they thought: A sentence like that could bring down our government. Take it out! It’s a window to not only the complexity and willpower of the Soviet government but on the Russian relationship with the written word.”
In A Gentleman in Moscow, a university friend of the count’s embarks on a project inspired by that very line, which helps keep him alive during his time in labor camps. “As awful as the crimes of Stalinism were,” Towles says, “the vast majority of the Russian population was trying to survive, to love, to have a sense of purpose.” It is this human world that A Gentleman in Moscow explores. Even in times of great adversity, repression, and personal danger, Towles says, “there is still a will to joy.”
Vera Kean is a writer living in New York.