Many of you are catching up to where we are in A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles for our summer book club. Last week we finished Book Two in the same spot we concluded Book One: we watch the Count’s feet essentially dangling over the edge of the Metropol Hotel. What brought him to this point?
First and foremost, he is on the roof of the building on the 10 year anniversary of his sister’s death, drinking a fine wine as he toasts to her memory: “To Helena Rostov, the flower of Nizhny Novgorod. Lover of the Pushkin, defender of Alexander, embroider of every pillowcase within reach. A life too brief, a heart too kind.” We come to learn his absence during his sister’s death is his greatest regret. Like most of life, the circumstances surrounding his absence were both in his control and outside of his control.
A couple of weeks ago we discussed what it might mean for the Count to begin to master his circumstances the way Michel de Montaigne describes in his book of essays. As we learn more about the Count and gain insight into his past while at the same time watching him navigate his present situation, the reader sees him vacillate between mastering his circumstances and being mastered by them. This moment on the edge of the hotel, then, is no different.
He decides to take his own life, yet is deterred by the enthusiasm of Andrey and his honey. The imagery and symbolism of this scene before this deterrence is something we ought to pause and consider:
“Before him sprawled the city, glorious and grandiose. Its legions of lights shimmered and reeled until they mixed with the movement of the stars. In one dizzy sphere they spun, confusing the works of man with the works of heaven.”
From there, he says “Good-bye, my country.”
This moment is weighty. The reader gains a sense of understanding of the heaviness of the Russian revolution on the shoulders of the Count. He witnesses the unraveling of the Russia he knows from different vantage points within the Metropol Hotel. I picture him looking out different windows as he visits different rooms within the hotel where he sees Russia as whole change over time and from various perspectives.
From the actress Anna Urbanova’s room, for example, he revisits the luxury that is so familiar. Outside her window, we can assume he sees a Russia that is somewhat familiar to him. He’s on the second floor, which is a little closer to the ground he’s come to know. The higher he gets, the less familiar he is with his country. So the reader might gather that staring out these windows has brought him to where he is at the end of Book Two, staring into the ether of his country from a height so distant, he barely recognizes where he’s from.
The idea of parallax comes to mind because Russia is very much in motion and the Count (and the readers) sees it unravel from so many angles. Each of these angles brings clarity to the overall gap between the different perspectives of Russia’s citizens, not to mention the change in his own understanding over time. I suspect this is why there is such reverence paid to the great Russian writers, composers, and artists. There was something significant and meaningful about being related to these people, and the Count’s sense of patriotism is strong. This connection, though, is changing. As he stands over the edge of the hotel and stares at his country and strains to recognize what he once knew, he has the sense that he no longer belongs. This is an emotion that has built for a while.
Where does that leave us? With the sweet taste of honey from Andrey: “Dutifully, the Count put the spoon in his mouth. In an instant, there was the familiar sweetness of fresh honey–sunlit, golden, and gay. Given the time of year, the Count was expecting this first impression to be followed by a hint of lilacs from the Alexander Gardens or cherry blossoms from the garden ring. But as the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely. Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of grassy riverbank…the trace of a summer breeze…a suggestion of pergola…But most of all, there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom.”
The reader can practically taste the sweet sense of nostalgia the Count experiences in this moment.
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