Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

I’d heard so many rave reviews of Amor Towles’ second novel that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. More than one person said it was the best book of the year for them. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would set myself up for disappointment.

The book is certainly entertaining I just expected…more. More than Eloise for grown-ups, which is what I kept thinking of as I read the novel.

We begin in 1922 when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest. Fortunately, he lives in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow so while he is a prisoner of sorts, it’s a pretty luxurious prison. The Count is an easy-going, aristocratic fellow, used to the finer things in life such as wine, good food, beautiful women. He’s still able to enjoy all of these things over the next years of his life in the Metropol. Truthfully, it’s hard to say how much his life really changes by his imprisonment. This is partially because we don’t see much of his life previous to his sentence and partially because his life doesn’t actually change much. Not through the upheavals of Moscow in the early twentieth century, not through World War Two. There are references to food scarcity and some political meetings but it never feels like the Count is in danger or that much of anything bad will happen to him. He seems to live a charmed, if imprisoned life.

The novel is largely character driven and it does sparkle here as we get to know the people who live and work in the Metropol. They are eccentric and charming and although some start off a little flat, Towles does a good job of expanding their lives as the Count gets to know each one better. When Towles takes us deeper into the lives of these characters – showing us what life is like for them outside of the hotel, for example – the novel offers glimpses of real depth. Unfortunately, these scenes are short and infrequent. As Russia changes so does the Count’s position and prestige and he adapts remarkably well to this for someone used to a life of ultimate privilege. It probably helps that he is apparently unbelievably talented at everything he sets his mind to – from eavesdropping to seat arrangements.

I would have liked to see more of the broader setting of Moscow. The novel spans from 1922 into the 1960s, a time of huge change in Russia and in the lives of ordinary people. Yet Towles seems to downplay the historical background as insignificant to the story of the Count. It’s hard to imagine that even in such a unique setting as the Metropol, people would be living so separately from the life of the city at large.

There’s lots to enjoy here as the book is well-written, often funny, and has a certain sparkle of language that makes it easy to read. If you’re looking for something more in-depth or challenging about Russia in the early 20th century, this isn’t it.

 

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Book Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This book will be available for sale in July 2017. I read an Advance Uncorrected Proof made available by the publisher.

The Unwomanly Face of War was first published in the Soviet Union in 1985 and translated into English in 1988 but, as far as I can tell, has been out of print in English for some years. This new translation comes from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, probably the best Russian to English translators currently working, and makes this fascinating work available to English readers once more.

From 1978 to 1985, Alexievich travelled through the Soviet Union, collecting stories from women about their experiences in World War Two. She presents these stories with some short introductions, slightly edited, but in the women’s own voices. The stories are often heartbreaking, sometimes funny, and genuinely illuminating. Until I started reading, I didn’t realize how large the involvement of women was for the Soviet Union in World War Two. Being used to Canadian and British war tales, I automatically thought I was going to read stories of women who were nurses, or worked in factories, or survived blitzes at home. While there are some of those stories here there are also stories of women who worked as sappers, served in tanks, lead platoons, de-mined fields and abandoned houses. Some of them lead troops of men, most of them worked side by side with male soldiers at the front lines.

Much of this is the result of communism. This is Soviet Russia, Stalin is both political leader and national hero. Love and loyalty to the Motherland has been instilled in these young women their whole lives. Over and over we hear stories of girls insisting they be sent to the front lines, fighting for the opportunity to shoot and fight and defend their nation. Sometimes these women even share stories of their intense loyalty despite having family members arrested and imprisoned by the government. It is a national fervour difficult to understand in our modern Western world

As with stories from the Western Front, these women were often very young when they ended up on the front lines. Freshly graduated from high school, they tell stories of growing three inches before they return home, of needing to have their wisdom teeth out while on retreat. It is the small details that stuck with me as I read the book. The petite girl embarassed by her height, who wore high heels as she evacuated the wounded from a hospital. The way the girls wept when they had to have their braids cut off as they entered the army. How they stole undershirts from the men because the army never thought to issue them items for their menstrual cycles.

There is a huge diversity of stories and locations and histories here, many with common threads that appear again and again for multiple women. As Alexievich suggests in the book’s introduction, women notice things and experience events differently than men. Their experience of war was unique and the Russian experience of World War Two is different than what many of us in the West may know or have learned.

A basic familiarity with Soviet history in the early 20th century is helpful when beginning the book  but I felt that it included the right amount of footnotes to aid in figuring out places, names, and historical events. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation retains the oral syntax of the Russian speakers so that while it occasionally feels awkward to an English reader, it also feels authentic to how someone might speak.

I know this book won’t be for everyone but if you have any interest in Russian or World War Two history, I highly recommend it.