Portsmouth-bound novelist Amor Towles talks about the life of a gentleman in Revolution-era Russia
In the opening of Amor Towles’ new novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” readers meet Count Alexander Rostov. It’s 1922, and in a few short years, the Russian aristocrat’s fortunes have changed drastically. His family, along with his ancestral home, Idlehour, have been swept away by the Russian Revolution. After appearing before a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count’s life as a gentleman — a lifestyle without borders or limits — is swept into the confines of the Metropol, a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow.
The Count’s house arrest begins in his 30s, and “A Gentleman in Moscow” follows the Count, the hotel staff, and the Metropol itself, as they reinvent themselves — or, in some cases, fully become what they already were — during the next three decades. The Count, with his impeccable wit and unfailing palate for fine food and drink, realizes early on that in order to survive his years in the Metropol and build a new life, he “must master his circumstances, or be mastered by them.”
Towles is no stranger to reinvention. He spent two decades working in finance, traveling the world and absorbing the daily rhythms and rituals of hotels like the Metropol. His 2011 novel, “Rules of Civility,” was a breakout hit, and in 2013, he left the investment business to write full-time.
Towles will present his new novel at The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth on Tuesday, Oct. 18. In advance of his visit, The Sound caught up with Towles by email to talk about real-life stories of the Metropol, Russian literature, “Casablanca,” and the fine art of traveling.
You traveled extensively during your career in finance. How did the idea for “A Gentleman in Moscow” take shape? When did you begin collecting material and sketching out your ideas?
Over the two decades that I was in the investment business, I traveled a good deal for my firm. Every year, I would spend weeks at a time in the hotels of distant cities meeting with clients and prospects. In 2009, returning for my annual visit to Le Richemond in Geneva, I recognized some of the people lingering in the lobby from the year before — as if they had never left. Upstairs in my room, I began to play with the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia, where house arrest has existed as a practice since the time of the tsars. The following week, I sketched out the story for “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Then, in 2013, I retired from my day job and began writing.
“A Gentleman in Moscow” and your previous novel, “Rules of Civility,” both examine how people reinvented themselves, their beliefs, their perceptions, etc., in the early 20th century. Can you elaborate on your interest in this dynamic?
I am very interested in the eternal tug-of-war between progress and tradition, between what is to be gained and what is being lost. Human development is not a linear progression. With each advance in the spheres of science, society, culture, and commerce inevitably come tradeoffs, setbacks, and sacrifices. We are seeing something of this dynamic in America today. Wondrous advances in technology, communications, and knowledge have paradoxically engendered an ample supply of isolation, alienation, and misinformation. Our economic advances have vaulted a few forward and left others profoundly behind. Our fitful march toward an open, integrated, and egalitarian society has resulted in the diminishment of many traditions, sensibilities, and values. In such a world, reinvention is constantly an opportunity, and often a bittersweet necessity.
The dynamic of gain and loss was certainly on vivid display in post-revolutionary Russia. At the time of the First World War, Russia was the most backward major nation in Europe, with 95 percent illiteracy and the majority of its citizens living as peasants under the rule of an aloof autocracy. With the Revolution, the social order was flipped over and the national values inverted. Universal education, rapid industrialization, and universal equality became the marching orders of the day. And while strides toward industrialization and greater equality were in fact being made, they came at incredible social cost and with the shedding of longstanding values and traditions. With the Russian Revolution, it was as if the country shifted from the mindset of the 19th century to the mindset of the 20th century in a day.
What was your research process like for the novel? Were there particular sources, either fiction or nonfiction, you turned to in order to help recreate early Soviet Russia?
Rather than pursuing research-driven projects, I like to write from areas of existing fascination. Even as a young man, I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the movies, and listening to the music of the era. I used this deep-seated familiarity as the foundation for inventing my version of 1938 New York in “Rules of Civility.” Similarly, I chose to write “A Gentleman in Moscow” because of my longstanding fascination with Russian literature, culture, and history. Most of the texture of the novel springs from the marriage of my imagination with that interest. For both novels, once I had finished the first draft, I did some applied research in order to fine-tune details. In the case of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I gathered firsthand accounts of life in the Metropol from an array of prominent people, including John Steinbeck, e e cummings, and Lillian Hellman. You can survey these accounts at amortowles.com.
The book is structured very carefully — not unlike, say, a smoothly operating international hotel. What’s your writing process like? How strict are you in terms of outlining, and did any of the characters or their predicaments catch you by surprise?
For both “Rules of Civility” and “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I worked with an extensive outline that details settings, events, interactions, and the psychological progress of characters chapter by chapter. That said, when the writing is going well it provides me with plenty of surprises. I was in the middle of writing the bouillabaisse scene, for instance, when I discovered that Andrey was a juggler. I was in the middle of drafting Sofia’s fitting, when I discovered (alongside the Count) that Marina had designed a backless dress. And I was well into writing the culminating scene about “Casablanca,” when I noticed for the first time the moment in the movie when Rick sets upright the toppled cocktail glass.
You’re an avowed fan of “Casablanca,” so perhaps it is not surprising that it appears in the book. Are there any other likes (or dislikes) you share with the Count?
One of the fringe benefits of being a novelist is that you can incorporate any of your passions into your work. Like the Count, I’m a fan of Tolstoy, I’m fond of “The Nutcracker,” and I take great pleasure in a good meal.
Finally, what’s your favorite piece of travel advice?
Amor Towles reads from “A Gentleman in Moscow” Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. at The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $41 and include a copy of the book. For tickets and more information, click here.