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Introduction

A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles

Title

Author

Amor Towles author picture

Amor Towles

© David Jacobs

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Interview

Book Trailer

Awards

Amazon Best Books of 2016: Top 10 Literature & Fiction #10

The New York Times - Editor’s Choice

Finalist: 2016 Kirkus Prize

About the Book

The novel follows Count Alexander Rostov after a 1922 Bolshevik tribunal orders him to spend the rest of his life inside the luxury Metropol hotel for being an unrepentant aristocrat.  

About the Author

  • Birth—1964
  • Where—near Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  • Education—B.A., Yale University; M.A., Stanford University
  • Currently—lives in New York City, New York 

Amor Towles was born and raised just outside Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University, where he was a Scowcroft Fellow. For his M.A. thesis, he wrote a series of five related stories that was published in the Paris Review in 1989.

Towles spent the next 20 years in the financial industry as director of research for Select Equity Group, an $18 billion hedge fund. During that time, he never gave up the dream of becoming an author. A decade into his financial career, he began work on a novel set in the Russian countryside, only to toss the manuscript after seven years. Finally, in 2006, he made another effort, this time succeeding with what would become his 2011 debut novel, Rules of Civility.

In 2013, Towles retired so he could devote himself to full-time writing. His second book, A Gentleman in Moscow, came out in 2016. According to Towles, the book was inspired by a business trip two years earlier as he mused about guests at Le Richemond hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. He had noticed the same people on a previous trip, and he began to wonder what it would be like to be trapped, for decades, inside a hotel. Towles wrote his thoughts down on Le Richemond hotel stationery, notes which he has kept to this day. (Adapted from the publisher and Wall Street Journal.)

Discussion Questions

  1. In the transcript at the opening of A Gentleman in Moscow, the head of the tribunal and Count Rostov have the following exchange:

    Secretary Ignatov: I have no doubt, Count Rostov, that some in the galley are surprised to find you charming; but I am not surprised to find you so. History has shown charm to be the last ambition of the leisure class. What I do find surprising is that the author of the poem in question could have become a man so obviously without purpose.
    Rostov: I have lived under the impression that a man’s purpose is known only to God.
    Secretary Ignatov: Indeed. How convenient that must have been for you.”

    To what extent is A Gentleman in Moscow a novel of purpose? How does the Count’s sense of purpose manifest itself initially, and how does it evolve as the story unfolds?
     
  2. Over the course of Book Two, why does the Count decide to throw himself from the roof of the Metropol? On the verge of doing so, why does the encounter with the old handyman lead him to change his plans?
     
  3. The Count’s life under house arrest is greatly influenced by his relationship with four women: Nina, Marina, Anna, and Sofia. What is the nature of the Count’s relationship with each of these women? How do those relationships differ from his relationship with the members of the Triumvirate—Andrey and Emile?
     
  4. The majority of A Gentleman in Moscow is told in the third person from the Count’s point of view. There is, however, an overarching narrator with a perspective different from the Count’s. Initially, this narrator appears in footnotes, then in the “Addendums,” then in the historical introductions of “1930,” “1938,” and “1946.” How would you characterize this narrator? How does he differ from the Count in terms of his point of view and tone of voice? What is his role in the narrative?
     
  5. In the “1946” chapter, Mishka, Osip, and Richard each share with the Count his perspective on the meaning of the revolutionary era. What are these three perspectives? Are you inclined to agree with one of them; or do you find there is some merit to each?
     
  6. A question from Amor Towles: One of the pleasures of writing fiction is discovering upon completion of a project that some thread of imagery has run through the work without your complete awareness—forming, in essence, an unintentional motif. While I was very conscious of the recurrence of tolling bells, keys, and concentric circles in the book, here are a few motifs that I only recognized after the fact: Packages wrapped in brown paper, such as the Maltese Falcon, Mishka’s book of quotations, the Russian nesting dolls discovered in the Italians’ closet, and the Count’s copy of Montaigne (in Paris). The likeness of stars, such as the freckles on Anna’s back and the beacon on the top of the Shukhov radio tower. Sailors (often in peril), such as Robinson Crusoe, Odysseus, Admiral Makarov, and Arion in the myth of Delphinus. What role do any of these motifs play in the thematic composition of the book? 
     
  7. How does the narrative incorporate the passage of time, and does it do so effectively? Thematically speaking, how does the Count’s experience of time change over the course of the novel and how does it relate to his father’s views as embodied by the twice-tolling clock? What does the novel suggest about the influence of individuals on history and vice versa?
     
  8. At the opening of Book Five, the Count has already decided to get Sofia out of Russia. What occurs over the course of Book Four to lead him to this decision? Why does he choose to remain behind? 
     
  9. Near the novel’s conclusion, what is the significance of the toppled cocktail glass in Casablanca? Why is this the Count’s favorite movie?
     
  10. This is a novel with a somewhat fantastical premise set half a century ago in a country very different from our own. Nonetheless, do you think the book is relevant today? If so, in what way?
     
  11. Bonus Question: Who in the novel also appears in Rules of Civility?
     
  12. The Metropol serves literally and symbolically as a window on the world. What picture does Amor Towles paint of the Soviet Union? What are the pressures, for instance, faced by those who both live in and visit the Metropol? Does Towles's dark portrait overwhelm the story's narrative?