Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow Discussion Guide

Book:     A Gentleman in Moscow 
Author:  Amor Towles 
Edition:  Hardcover 


What appeared at first to be a delightful series of intertwined vignettes became a novel of humor and history with characters that made me want to step into the lobby of the Metropol Hotel, run up and down the staircases and dine in the Boyarsky.
Animated alliterations pepper the novel and every word seems carefully selected to maximize pleasure for the reader:
“With the instincts of convicts who discover the gates of their prison open, the individual oranges rolled in every direction to maximize their chances of escape.”
I highly recommend visiting A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towels.

Internet Resources

Hotel Metropol was the fanciest hotel in Moscow when it opened in 1905. The grand hotels of 1900s, as pointed out in the novel, were siblings in many ways having similar architecture, an international restaurant and an American bar, and were often the first hotels  in their cities with heat in the rooms.
There are many interviews with Amor Towles on YouTube, one that has more depth than most along with a nice mix of how Amor Towles writes, his writing process, his characters and his challenge of making an aristocrat likable. 

Major Characters

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov: a Russian aristocrat arrested when he was 30 years old and sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol by the Bolsheviks.
Nina Kulikova: First makes the Count’s introduction as a young girl living at the Metropol with her bureaucrat father.
Anna Urbanova: Movie star who frequents the Metropol and becomes the Count’s paramour
Mishka: Poet and revolutionary friend of the Count’s
Sofia: Nina’s daughter, “adopted” by the Count
Helena: Count’s sister who died of scarlet fever
The Bishop: Villainous waiter who becomes headwaiter of the Boyarksky
Emile Zhukovsky: Head Chef at the Boyarsky
Andrey: MaĆ®tre d’ at the Boyarsky
Triumvirate: Emile, Andrey and the Count
Marina: Coat checker and seamstress at the hotel
Richard Vanderwhile: Works for American State Department, meets the Count in the Shalyapin
Audrius: Bartender at the Shalyapin
Osip Glebnikov: Party member who engages the Count to teach him western habits 

Sections

Section
Time Period

Book 1
1922
Beginning with the day the Count is arrested
Book 2
1923
Precisely one year after the Count’s arrest, the Count makes the acquaintance of Anna Urbanova
Book 3
1930
8 years along and the Count has become the head waiter at the Boyarsky, he Count meets Osip, the Triumvirate make their bouillabaisse. In 1938, Nina brings her 5-year old daughter Sofia to live with the Count. Sofia falls in the stairwell at 13 years old.
Book 4
1950
Sofia, now 17, has become a virtuoso pianist. 
Book 5
1954
Sofia is off to a cultural musicians’ exchange in Paris

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for A Gentleman in Moscow which may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed.  Topics such as perspective and place are common themes across novels and can serve as interesting points of comparison.

Point of View

The novel itself unfolds as a series of vignettes, the geese let loose in the hotel, Nina testing the laws of physics dropping items off the balcony, the making of the bouillabaisse. Which were your favorite vignettes? Which have stuck with you since you turned the last page and what about the writing or the content etched the scene in your memory? Perhaps you were reminded of a game you played as a child, or a place you have visited or a moment you gathered with friends.
While the novel is told in the 3rd person from the Count’s point of view through most of the novel, there is a secondary narrator watching the hotel from outside.  This narrator, through footnotes and critiques, offers the reader a glimpse into the historical activities occurring in parallel with the story.  Even the slight turns of repeated phrase such as 
“let her dress slip to the floor with a delicate whoosh” which goes on to ask “What’s this! When we last left this pair in 1923, did not Anna Urbanova dismiss the count with a definitive instruction to 'draw the curtain’?” page 191 
allude to a third person watching the scene.
What insights does this narrator offer?  What would you have missed as a reader without this narrator popping in?

Friendship

Friendship is a recurring theme and what one will do for a friend.  
When Nina arrives and asks the Count to take in Sofia:
“When such a friend has sought one out to ask for aid — particularly one for whom asking favors in a time of need does not come naturally— then there is only one acceptable response.” page 235
When Mishka arrives at the Metropol:
“On the one hand, there was that specialty of seeing a friend from youth unexpectedly— a welcome event no matter when or where.” page 287
In the Shalypin:
“Some might wonder that the two men should consider themselves to be old friends having only known each other for four years, but the tenure of friendships has never been governed but the passage of time. These two would have felt like old friends had they met just hours before. To some degree, this was because they were kindred spirits— finding ample evidence of common ground and cause for laughter in the midst effortless conversation; but it was almost certainly matter of upbringing.” page 333
In what ways is the Count buoyed by his friendships? What is the essence of friendship to you? Do you have friends for whom ‘there is only one acceptable response’?  Are you a friend to someone whom you could ask the world? To take in and raise their child for instance? What qualities to you want in your friendships?

Place

Through Nina’s explorations (and her key) we are taken to far more nooks and crannies of the hotel than any guest would see, and even much of the staff would not seek out.  At the same time the hotel is described as an extension of the city. 
Consider talking with your discussion group about the allure of secret places that you discover and the connection to place that is comfortable because it feels known as an extension of a place you know. How does each type of place appeal to you?

Living in the Present

Emile, Andrey and the Count wait patiently for all elements to align to create the perfect bouillabaisse.  As they savor the bouillabaisse, they simultaneously savor conversation among friends, 
“feeling that this moment, this hour, this universe could not be improved upon.” page 224.
This scene so beautifully unfolds time, with the precious present the only moment in mind for these three friends.  
When are you so absorbed in the present that nothing else intrudes?  Was that a time of joy or sorrow, calm or excitement? What do you savor when you are completely immersed in the present?

Sense of Purpose

Even with his limited space, the Count seemed to find a sense of purpose throughout his house arrest. From taking in Sofia to being a waitstaff at the Boyarsky, from knowing who could be seated near whom even to his education of Osip, and most importantly, to the very last detail he planned in Sofia’s defection and his escape, the Count sought out purpose. Do you see his sense of purpose as an outcome of his house arrest or was he able to manage his house arrest because he came in as someone who found purpose every day? Did the Count seek out his purpose or did purpose find the Count?
Where do you find your purpose? In what ways do you seek out purpose and when has purpose found you?

Parallels with the movie Casablanca

For a fun discussion evening consider watching Casablanca and discussing parallels between the movie and A Gentleman in Moscow.  Along with the movie being directly referenced and watched in the novel, consider the similarities between Rick’s somewhat self-imposed house arrest in Casablanca where he can’t leave and the Count’s house arrest.
As you watch look for the scene the Count defends where Rick says:
“I’m sorry there was a disturbance, folks, buti t’s all over now. Everything’s all right. Just sit down and have a good time. Enjoy yourself. All right, Sam.” page 425
This scene is near the beginning of the movie.  
The Count's friend Viktor reflects at the end of the novel,
“the saloonkeeper’s cool response to Ugarte’s arrest and his instruction for the band to play on could suggest a certain indifference to the fates of men. But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world?” page 459
How is Rick’s sense of purpose similar and dissimilar from the Count’s?

Contrast with Rules of Civility

If you have read Rule of Civility, spend some time comparing the intersections of these two novels.  Rules of Civility focuses almost exclusively on characters who are coming of age while A Gentleman in Moscow draws strength from the intergenerational relationships that are formed.  Where else do they contrast?  
The essence of propriety is a centerpiece of each novel.  What else do they have in common? 

Quotes

“Whoa,” she shouted, “whoa!” Apparently unfamiliar with equine commands, the wolfhounds leapt again. page 111 
With the instincts of convicts who discover the gates of their prison open, the individual organs rolled in every direction to maximize their chances of escape. page 220
What quotes stuck with you?

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