Book Review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

gentleman in moscow

A book that soothes and warms you with its infectious geniality. A book filled with optimism, verve, self-belief and, incongruous though it seems, Communism. A gorgeous story, whose luxury comes not from the fine dining, orchestral music and room service of the best hotel in Moscow, but from its generosity of spirit.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a gentleman in every sense of the word: not just thanks his to family name, but to his undying optimism and good humour. He is a gentleman in the age of Bolshevism, he is a “Former Person,” he is a prisoner of the state. Once accustomed to all the finer things in life, a gentleman of distinction and leisure, he is now under house arrest till the end of his days. The Hotel Metropol must now become his world.

But there are worse places to be put under house arrest than the most glamorous hotel in Russia. And besides, one can never predict who might stroll through the elegant revolving doors and change your life forever: a forthright girl, a brooding poet, an elegant movie star, an American ambassador, a prissy hotel manager, a one-eyed cat, a cantankerous chicken…

Despite Rostov’s confinement, the story does not feel the slightest bit confined. Where better to accommodate important committees on commerce and industry than the grand halls of the Metropol, while a curious girl and a Count can quietly observe? Outside the hotel, queues of people line the streets to get a new pair of shoes, and city monuments are brought down to make way for something more utilitarian. We peer into the Kremlin offices and travel out to rural farms; we hear stories of a rich man’s past and a loving husband’s broken home.

A world of experience, sprawling outwards and curling back inwards; a spiralling map that leads back to the Hotel Metropol and the ever charismatic Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, “the luckiest man in all of Russia” (p313).

 “Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” (p441-2)

“The Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” (p417)

(I really tried to delete one of these quotes for the sake of brevity, but I just couldn’t.)


ISBN: 9780091944247

Publisher: Cornerstone

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow

Author: Amor Towles

3 Reviews!

I failed to post a review during February, so have three to make up for it:

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

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 My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

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In the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophy

Does what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses are likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.

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Review: “The Tobacconist” by Robert Seethaler

The Tobacconist

By Robert Seethaler

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The Tobacconist is Robert Seethaler’s new release, following his Man Booker Shortlisted novel, A Whole Life (2016) (click here for my review of A Whole Life). I adored A Whole Life and was very eager to get going with Seethaler’s new novel when I got wind of its publication.

Vienna is on the brink of World War II. The city and its people are still recovering from the previous war, but Hitler’s influence is spreading and a restless populace is growing evermore so. Franz Huchel, a naive teenager from the salt mines, has been sent to work as an apprentice in a tobacconist’s. Franz’s employer, Otto Trysnyek, is a veteran, having lost a leg back in the war. He lives a simple and honest life and finds an unexpected ally in his dedicated apprentice. The tobacconist shop is the social equaliser: cigarettes and cigars, newspapers and pinup girls in a private drawer; everyone has their usual order, even a certain Jewish psychologist by the name of Freud.

As “Heil Hilter!” becomes a more regular greeting around the city, the lives of Otto, Franz and Freud grow ever more challenging. By the time his apprenticeship ends, Franz will be a boy no longer. He’ll learn about friendship, love and respect in a city about to be overrun by hate and fear.

“Maybe that’s it, he thought: just stop and stand here like this and never move again. Then time would drift past you, you wouldn’t have to swim with it or struggle against it.”

Now, I’ll be honest, it’s nowhere near as good as A Whole Life. But then I have put that book on something of a pedestal, so I had a lot of expectations going in. Seethaler’s stoic yet emotive description that so captured me before makes sporadic appearances but not nearly enough, in The Tobacconist. However, the characterisation and the plot development are more reminiscent of the writing I remember. Seethaler’s success is in taking everyday people with extraordinary struggles and infusing them with quiet strength. It is the noble example his characters set that I hope will continue to make his novels worth seeking out.

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review for A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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“Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford – Review

Golden Hill

By Francis Spufford

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Woe-betide anyone who dared in to interrupt me mid-chapter! A glittering gem of a book, this historical New York adventure satisfies every requirement for a fantastic novel. Language that glitters and glides across every page. Delightful use of old English gave this historical novel authenticity and a sense of old-world grandeur. Combine that with a festival of characters, delicious and imaginative description and the perfect amount of mystery. Francis Spufford’s “Golden Hill” is encrusted, gilded, sheathed with magic. Pleasure beyond measure.

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye.”

Twists and turns through every chapter kept this reader well and truly glued to the page and though I am generally a slow reader, I steamed through this book within a couple of days. It’s a testament to any book when its reader cannot have a spare moment that isn’t filled with hastily consuming another chapter – or three.

The more I like a book, the shorter the review is. Let this suffice.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce – Review

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

By Rachel Joyce

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Harold Fry is now an old man. He’s lead an unremarkable life and never really committed to anything. He lives with his wife Maureen. They drifted apart a long time ago. Their son left a long time ago. And a long time ago, a simple, kind woman named Queenie Hennessy did Harold a big favour that he never thanked her for. One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie. She’s dying from cancer. Harold writes a letter, walks down the road to the letterbox and keeps walking. He will walk to Queenie Hennessy. From his home in Kingsbridge on the south coast to Queenie’s bedside in Berwick-on-Tweed on the Scottish border. 500 miles, he would walk; he would say thank you, he would save Queenie’s life. He believed in something for the first time in a very long time and gave others something to believe in too. As Harold walked, and as Maureen and Queenie waited, each would share in his pilgrimage and find comfort, courage and relief.

Rachel Joyce’s book is utterly moving, but equally full of joy, charm and humour. When Harold starts walking, he is an introverted, lonely, apathetic man. But the more he walks, the more he opens himself to the world around him. From the simple joy of walking through green fields, to his belief in the kindness of strangers, Harold finds so much to be thankful for.

“He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”

After he unwittingly shares his story with a journalist, Harold’s pilgrimage becomes national news. Other everyday people, with their own everyday problems are inspired by Harold and go in search of him, believing that they too might find some relief, if only they can achieve something.

“They believed in him. They had looked at him in his yachting shoes, and listened to what he said, and they had made a decision in their hearts and minds to ignore the evidence and imagine something bigger and something infinitely more beautiful than the obvious.”

“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (Or “The New Hamlet”)

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Nutshell

Ian McEwan

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What a refreshing change from his usual bittersweet format; Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” is like no book I’ve ever read. Told entirely from the perspective of an unborn baby, the intellectual life of this foetus is a fascinating retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The bliss and boredom of existing afforded to the unborn promotes the excess of existential thought exhibited by the eponymous Hamlet, who battles vehemently with the notions of life, love and death.

There are moments of fantastic introspective clarity as well as hilarious observation throughout the book, as he makes use of what he hears and feels of the outside world. His observations and sensations are filtered through his mother – her hormonal/emotional/digestive responses are also his. Don’t think that means he has no emotions or opinions of his own, being in fact very frustrated by having to share in everything she feels and eats. But, he has excellent hearing of his own – a known fact of unborn children – and so his commentary and accounts of conversations can be taken as reliable.

He has some very sophisticated tastes for a foetus, not least his penchant for a good vintage – thanks to sharing his mother’s food and drink – and his appreciation for poetry and literary criticism – thanks to having a poet for a father and late night podcasts that his mother listens to when she can’t sleep. The sophistication of this foetus is fantastically absurd. “Milk, repellent to the blood-fed unborn, especially after wine, but my future all the same.” Small talk “is an adult device, a covenant with boredom and conceit.” “God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually.” These statements contain a wonderful meshing of childish bluntness with old-age boredom. Things children say because they don’t know they shouldn’t. Things old people say because they no longer care. One thinks of another famous Shakespeare quote – “second childishness”.

Of all the Shakespeare adaptations that exist – books, films, plays, TV – this is one of the most successful I have come across. It rather puts “The Wyrd Sisters” (aka “Macbeth”) by Terry Pratchett to shame, a book I read alongside “Nutshell”. Hamlet is one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters and rightly so. His soliloquys are the most infamous, powerful and elegant. It is particularly this feature of the play that McEwan has fabulously reworked in “Nutshell”. The passages I enjoyed most were exactly what you expect from Hamlet’s monologues: powerful exaltations and lamentations on human nature; the wonder that it is to think and be. Consciousness in overdrive. Besides their evident connection with Shakespeare, these passages are also incredibly modern and relevant with regards to politics, science and social analysis.

“Elsewhere, everywhere, novel inequalities of wealth, the super rich a master race apart. Ingenuity deployed by states for new forms of brilliant weaponry, by global corporations to dodge taxes, by righteous banks to stuff themselves with Christmas millions. China, too big to need friends or counsel, cynically probing its neighbours’ shores, building islands of tropical sand, planning for the war it knows must come. Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism, by sexual sickness, by smothered invention. The Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war. And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with ever new handgun. Africa, yet to learn democracy’s party trick – the peaceful transfer of power.”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a highly cerebral soul and that is his fatal flaw. Hamlet fails to be active or effective in the real world and this is precisely what escalates the tragedy in the play. Hamlet thinks and fails to act. Others complain he is too melancholy, too lost in his thoughts. What McEwan has done, by making Hamlet a foetus, is remove the blame that was laid at Hamlet’s feet. A foetus cannot be blamed for its inability to act. Where Hamlet’s is a cage of the mind, the baby is physically caged within his mother’s womb. By replacing a mental cage with a physical one, McEwan also gives us a powerful metaphor for depression, anxiety and even psychosis.

“What’s an imagination for but to play out and linger on and repeat the bloody possibilities? Revenge may be exacted a hundred times over in one sleepless night. The impulse, the dreaming intention, is human, normal, and we should forgive ourselves.”

Equally though, McEwan is crediting the relevance, the potential of a soully conceptual existence. For the foetus, to think is its only activity, aside from giving mum the odd kick, and as such, thinking is the only way it knows how to be. It may observe, speculate, look forward to existence beyond the womb, but at least for now, this warm, moist sac is his world, his universe.

“Just think: nothing to do but be and grow, where growing is hardly a conscious act. The joy of pure existence, the tedium of undifferentiated days. Extended bliss is boredom of the existential kind.”

Throughout the book, the baby is a witness, incapable of taking action, but that does not detract from its contribution to the plot. McEwan gives us an entirely inactive character as our narrator, but does that mean the story does not progress? That the child’s existence has not played its part in the story, or at least, in the telling of it? No.

McEwan has reinvigorated “Hamlet” and reminded us of the value of Hamlets in literature and art in general. “Hamlet” and “Nutshell” are artistic masterpieces because they deal with ideas. We feed off ideas, we exist because of ideas. We think, therefore we are.

“Number 11” by Jonathan Coe – Book Review

Number 11

By Jonathan Coe

number 11

I read Jonathan Coe’s novel, What a Carve Up! while studying at university a couple of years ago. It was an excellent book – not to mention it lead to an essay worthy of a 1st (it got 2:1, but I’m not bitter or anything…) – so I didn’t need much encouragement in reading another of Coe’s titles.

I picked up Number 11 with a great deal of hope. I put down the book with disappointment.

I was unaware when I started reading that Number 11 features a great deal of narrative strands connecting it with his previous novel, What a Carve Up! (WACU). The wealthy and loathsome Winshaw family, who meet a gruesome end in WACU, have some grandchildren and extended family members yet to be culled. Number 11 appears to be Coe’s way of tying up these loose ends.

I have not read any other Coe novels, but his tendency to be self-referential is known, and as such I cannot be certain if “Number 11” is intended as a sequel to WACU, or if he is just sticking to his regular habits by reusing character names and referencing his own work. Even if it is a sequel, Number 11 can certainly be read independently, you’ll just miss out on the occasional giggle when something familiar pops up.

In any case, I can only judge from what I have read myself, and what I think is this: Number 11 is a lazy sequel to What a Carve Up!.  Before, there were fantastically clever twists and turns, infuriating but exacting use of metafiction; all leading to a tumultuous and harrowing conclusion which looked into the very soul of modern classism and cultural degradation. And now? Some lame attempts at self-referencing and unrevealing examples of Continue reading

Book Review: “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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My first reading of an Ishiguro novel has shown me how his masterful storytelling has succeeded in capturing readers around the world.

A mysterious mist covers the land of medieval Britain and robs the inhabitants of their memories. Borrowing from Arthurian legend, Ishiguro takes us on a journey of discovery that meets with adventure and the heart-breaking account of what it means to love and to remember.

By elegantly weaving memories with present action, the passing of time becomes an impeccable example of writing style working in step with the narrative themes. In the quest to find the source of the mist, the memories of our characters come and go and we, as readers, glide imperceptibly between past and present. Quiet revelations permeate the story as they remember things forgotten, and uncover the truth of their present. These revelations are precious moments of truth and clarity spared of ostentation or announcement. You could almost miss them if it weren’t for the rapt attention that Ishiguro conjures with his gently powerful style.

There is not a single moment in this novel that doesn’t feel considered and concise. Every line, every sentence, every moment is integral. All the components are perfectly in tune with one another, like the internal workings of a clock. Busily, steadily, the cogs wind onward and we are comforted by the sense of considered purpose that sustains the entire novel.

As I neared the end, I felt a genuine desire for a quick resolution, a knot somewhere in my chest as I hastened to toward the last page. But, as throughout the rest of the novel, Ishiguro neither slows cruelly – as some authors do, stretching out our anxiety – nor hastily rushes his conclusion. He simply continues, steadily, unswervingly, with the measured pace of a practised storyteller. He trusts in the story to make its own impact and not once does he employ any cheap keep-away tactics.

“The Buried Giant” is a story that stays with you. Moving and gripping, but never pushing, pulling or grabbing, it is a style that invites you in but knows precisely when to let you go. Even when you implore him to continue.

“He felt as one standing in a boat on a wintry river, looking out into dense fog, knowing it would at any moment part to reveal vivid glimpses of the land ahead. And he had been caught in a kind of terror, yet at the same time had felt a curiosity – or something stronger and darker – and he told himself firmly, ‘Whatever it may be, let me see it, let me see it.’”

 

Book Review: “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler

The first book recommended to me by the staff at Waterstones:

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A Whole Life

by Robert Seethaler

5-stars

Neither the economy of language nor the physical coldness of the landscape do anything to dampen the warmth of feeling woven throughout this short novel – both bitter and sweet.

There is a frankness and plainness to the words that creates a world without over-filling it. You feel that every word is necessary. It is ungarnished. The infrequent dialogue is made the more potent by its scarcity and blunt truthfulness. You feel as if these are memories hewn by time to their most composite form; memories whose accuracy encompasses all that is needed, all that is most affective. Our guide, Egger, is a man of fortitude and quiet strength. His many trials, though tragic, are without the solipsism of tragedy.

“But each time the rumbling died away and the clear cries of the jackdaws could be heard again.”

He limps through life as best he can, and his quiet, persistent trudging is honourable and life-affirming. An unstudied lesson in philosophy; gently shown, not taught. We are blown through his snowy valley as quiet observers. In Egger’s solitude, we are not made to feel like intruders, but rather to join with the quiet breath of the mountains that are his constant companions. And for our silent companionship, his unimposing wisdom is our gift.

“A Whole Life,” in less than 150 pages. As you read, the sense of empathy settles quietly within, without your noticing and Egger, though often a stranger within his own story, is not a stranger to you for long.

 

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review of The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

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