As we all watch with despair and disbelief at the damage that a puny, heartless autocrat can inflict, as fate would have it, I’ve been spending some time with another Russian—not a craven autocrat, but a charming aristocrat: Count Alexander Ilyich. He is the gentle, poetic hero of the marvelous novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
What a gifted write Amor is! With deft strokes of his pen and taps on his computer keys, he whirls his readers away to another place and time as effortlessly as we were leaves carried on the wind. A few musings on how he works his magic:
He conjures his story with verve and deftness: His calm, unhurried style seems perfectly suited to his subject. His prose is as layered as one of the delectable pastries the Count might have savored in a legendary bakery while eavesdropping on a band of gossiping young ladies.
He creates a flawed, lovable character: The Count leaps, or rather, strolls, off the page. From the first moment we meet him, through the fragment of a poem he wrote long ago, he’s engaging, believable, and absolutely unique—plucked from another place and era. He’s someone it’s enjoyable and enlivening to spend time with.
He creates an entrancing, evocative setting: Virtually the entire novel unfolds in 1922 in the Metropol, a hotel in Moscow. While one would think the setting would be claustrophobic, it is anything but confining. Like a traveler who chooses a single spot as a base of operations from which to explore the surrounding countryside, the Count explores all of Moscow and indeed, much of Russia. We learn so much!
He is a gentle and bemused chronicler: An author who loves his characters—with all their flaws and foibles—is an author who writes with poise and confidence: We feel that we are eavesdropping, not reading, as we travel together. As a reader, you instantly know that you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller—a wonderful place to be.
What a gift to be able to slip away for a while. Write on!
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