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A Guest of the Party

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After two TV appearances and four radio interviews before 7 a.m., my wife and I were glad we could totter back to the Ambassador in Chicago or the Ritz Carlton in Boston and relax in our suite, lift the telephone and order breakfast for two. But that was half a century ago, when publishers organized publicity tours on a grand scale; now, when friends come to Australia to talk up a new book, I meet them at a hotel (three-star at best) at the back of Kings Cross.

Amor Towles had no accommodation problems during his twenty years as a banker, moving effortlessly from luxury hotel to luxury hotel all across the USA and Europe – and in his spare time writing a novel which was published in 2011 as Rules of Civility and immedi­ately entered the bestseller lists. Switching from banking to full-time writing, he continued to frequent grand hotels. One day, sitting in the lobby of one and looking at fellow guests, he had ‘this eerie sense that I had seen them before’. He realized that some people actually live, permanently, in hotel suites. ‘And I thought, what would it be like to live in a hotel like this for the rest of your life?’

The answer to that question lies at the heart of Towles’s second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016). For many years Count Alexander Rostov has occupied one of the Moscow Metropol’s most luxurious suites. Unmistakably an aristocrat but also a liberal, he supports the 1917 Revolution, but in 1922 he writes a politically equivocal poem which brings him before the Bolshevik Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for International Affairs. He expects execution, but as he is ‘a former hero of the pre-revolu­tionary cause’ the Committee is lenient, and he is sentenced to isolation for the rest of his life within the Metropol. If he sets foot outside the hotel, he will be shot.

Naturally, Rostov cannot continue to occupy the luxurious suite, furnished with handsome family possessions, in wh

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After two TV appearances and four radio interviews before 7 a.m., my wife and I were glad we could totter back to the Ambassador in Chicago or the Ritz Carlton in Boston and relax in our suite, lift the telephone and order breakfast for two. But that was half a century ago, when publishers organized publicity tours on a grand scale; now, when friends come to Australia to talk up a new book, I meet them at a hotel (three-star at best) at the back of Kings Cross.

Amor Towles had no accommodation problems during his twenty years as a banker, moving effortlessly from luxury hotel to luxury hotel all across the USA and Europe – and in his spare time writing a novel which was published in 2011 as Rules of Civility and immedi­ately entered the bestseller lists. Switching from banking to full-time writing, he continued to frequent grand hotels. One day, sitting in the lobby of one and looking at fellow guests, he had ‘this eerie sense that I had seen them before’. He realized that some people actually live, permanently, in hotel suites. ‘And I thought, what would it be like to live in a hotel like this for the rest of your life?’ The answer to that question lies at the heart of Towles’s second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016). For many years Count Alexander Rostov has occupied one of the Moscow Metropol’s most luxurious suites. Unmistakably an aristocrat but also a liberal, he supports the 1917 Revolution, but in 1922 he writes a politically equivocal poem which brings him before the Bolshevik Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for International Affairs. He expects execution, but as he is ‘a former hero of the pre-revolu­tionary cause’ the Committee is lenient, and he is sentenced to isolation for the rest of his life within the Metropol. If he sets foot outside the hotel, he will be shot. Naturally, Rostov cannot continue to occupy the luxurious suite, furnished with handsome family possessions, in which he has previ­ously lived. His furniture is now the property of the people, and he is escorted to a former servants’ bedroom under the roof, together with a very few chattels (including, however, a desk the hollow legs of which are stacked with gold coins). There he remains for the duration of the novel, accompanied by Field Marshal Kutuzov, the hotel’s one-eyed lobby cat, and occasionally visited by Vasily, the concierge, and Andrey, the maître d’ of the famous Boyarsky restaurant. Rostov’s lifelong love of food and wine make him especially useful to them when a com­plaint is filed with the Commissar of Food, claiming that ‘the existence of [the hotel’s] wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution’. The labels are removed from every one of the 100,000 bottles in the hotel’s cellars. Fortunately, Rostov can identify most of them. The complaint has been made by a new wine waiter, clearly a Party apparatchik, and it seems that the Bolsheviks will not rest until every last vestige of the Metropol Rostov has known and loved has been uprooted, shattered or erased. From that moment, his tolerance of change van­ishes, and he decides to rescue the hotel from the revolutionaries. Unexpected help comes from a 9-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova, living in the hotel with her governess, who presents herself at the Count’s luncheon table and eagerly questions him about the lives of former princesses. Incurably curious, she has somehow stolen a hotel passkey, and she introduces him to every corner of the great building. When she leaves, she presents him with the key as a farewell present, and it enables him to enter ‘rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors’, becoming in all but name the commissar of the Metropol. Using the passkey he familiarizes himself with every aspect of the hotel’s changed life, eavesdropping for instance, from the balcony of the magnificent but now dingy ballroom, on the Second Meeting of the First Congress of the Moscow Branch of the All-Russian Union of Railway Workers – that scene is one of several extremely funny contrasts between the increasingly worn elegance of the Metropol and the boorishness of the comrades who are now its chief guests. This is, incidentally, not only a quietly but also sometimes a quite noisily funny book – when Nina Kulikova first appears accompanied by two elegant borzois, Field Marshal Kutuzov’s welcome is less than courteous. Nor is the book devoid of sex: Rostov, clearly an attractive man, is seduced by a young film actress, one moment occupying a magnificent confiscated mansion, the next forced to hand it and its contents back to the people because her latest film has failed to please Stalin. The sound of her silk dress slipping to the floor of the bed­room in the Count’s former suite surprises but also delights him. Rostov has not seen the last of Nina Kulikova: she revisits the hotel as a young woman, her husband sentenced to the Gulag, whence she will follow him. She implores the Count to care for her daughter Sofia. He cannot refuse, and the 5-year-old moves into his tiny apartment. The story of the relationship between the middle-aged aristocrat and the child is both convincing and touching. Sofia turns out to be a spectacularly fine pianist, is fêted in Moscow, longs to play in the West and . . . it is easy to replace the dots. But never mind, the ingenious conclusion will satisfy the most romantic reader. In any case ‘the story’ is the least important part of the book. At its core is the relationship between Rostov and the Metropol’s staff. No doubt during his early days as a guest he always treated them with courtesy, but now they become his friends, the changing relationship at first rather confusing him, as indeed do the incursions of the outside world: the young second violinist of the trio which plays in the Boyarsky was once the heir of a rich and noble family; the mist of frost on a woman’s furs recalls the former world of banquets and balls, seductions and duels (in his time the Count has killed his man). Outside events and their effects are not central to the story, only rarely seriously disturbing, and never dominating its flow, yet the changes in society are continually reflected in the presence and behaviour of the nouveau puissant guests, who can’t read the menu, order red wine with fish and gesture rudely with their forks. Apropos, one day a mysterious stranger summons the Count to dinner. He is a Colonel in the Red Army, ‘an officer of the Party’, whose task, he says, is to ‘keep track of certain men of interest’. In fact he has come to commission Rostov to teach him how to be ‘a gentleman’. Clearly, things are changing. And indeed, in 1953, Stalin dies. Gradually, the country opens up: foreign correspondents appear at the hotel, a few high-ranking Ameri-can officers, even one or two tourists. From the Metropol’s windows the Count sees across Theatre Square that the audience arriving at the Bolshoi is once again in evening dress. In the Metropol’s kitchen, the chef can once more complete his recipes using real ingredients rather than rough equivalents picked from neglected gardens. And the man they call The Butler, clearly a Party spy, loses most of his unspoken authority. You can stay at the Metropol today: an excellent suite will cost you about 33,500 roubles (say £350) a night. I have been unable to obtain an estimate for a single room under the eaves. Dining in the main restaurant under its stained-glass dome I doubt if you will need a black tie; nor would I expect to find many diners clad in the ‘simple, hygienic and functional clothes’ of the Revolutionary period. But I would not be surprised should a tall, elegant man of impeccable carriage, greying perhaps a little at the temples, be promptly at your side to advise, discreetly, that ‘a bottle of the San Lorenzo Barolo 1912 Mukuzani will be excellent with the osso buco’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 72 © Derek Parker 2021


About the contributor

Derek Parker has just returned from an 18-year holiday in Australia, and is testing King George V’s opinion of life in Bognor.

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