Book review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Financial wizard Amor Towles has turned his hand to novel writing and it turns out he’s pretty good at that too, writes Sue Leonard.

Book review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles

Hutchinson, €16.37;

Kindle, €8.18

WHEN Amor Towles was 25 and living in New York City, he needed to make a living, so he became an investment professional. And he remained one for 21 years.

During that time there were several economic crashes including the bursting of the internet bubble and the banking crash of 2008.

And although these mishaps created setbacks for Amor’s clients; for his firm, and for himself, he saw them as a challenge, and a chance to become stronger, and to gain an even better reputation.

Indeed, when he left the company — one managing money for endowments, foundations and EU institutions, it had developed from the two-man company he had joined, to a firm of 100 people managing €14bn.

“It’s a fascinating field”, says Amor, on the phone from London, where he is in the middle of a publicity tour.

“You are studying the world on a daily basis.”

During this time, Amor had been writing. And his first book, Rules of Civility, a New York Times bestseller, was released when he was still working in finance full-time. And while his clients must have been surprised at this divergence, his friends were not.

“What all my old friends find shocking, is that I was in finance, not that I had written a book. I was always a bookish nerdy writer as a kid, and in high school and college and graduate school.

“I wrote a book on the job for seven years, which I didn’t like, so I put it in a drawer.

"I learned a great deal from that failed project, and I applied all that I had learned to my second novel — and that became Rules of Civility. When that became a bestseller I retired.”

What was it like, at 48, leaving the workplace to write from home?

“I loved my old job. I love my colleagues, but I’m very happy writing full-time.

"If I was 30, I might crave social interaction during the day; and I might yearn to be out of the house because the children are crying or driving me crazy, but I’ve waited my whole life to write fiction, and I am thrilled to spend six hours a day working on it.”

We’re talking about his second published novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. Set in Russia from 1922 up to the 50s, the novel centres on the Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat who is on house arrest in an attic in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel.

It details his life, adapting to the changes in Russia — and shows some endearing friendships — with a chef, an actress, and a nine-year-old girl. It’s a glorious read — sumptuous, charming, and eminently readable.

“[The count] has lost his family; his possessions; and his social standing, and more importantly, he is about to watch as everything he loves about Russian life is going to be uprooted systematically by the new regime.

"But he has two things going for him; his upbringing as a gentleman and ingrained optimism.

"It is this — being a person of honour, that allows him to navigate the three decades in the hotel.”

He started writing the book four years ago — but the germ of an idea came three years before that.

“Travelling with my firm, I stayed in hotels on an annual basis. I was in London, Los Angeles and Geneva for a week every year meeting with clients.

"In 2009, I arrived at the hotel in Geneva for the eighth time, and when I walked into the hotel I recognised people in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left.

“I thought, this is a nice hotel, but imagine if you had to live in it? In the elevator on my way upstairs, I thought, that is an interesting idea for a book.

"I took out the hotel stationary and sketched out the notion for the book, and straight away, I thought if I was trapping a protagonist in a hotel for a period of time, it should be in Russia. House arrest has existed there for hundreds of years.

“I had visited Russia once, in 1998, and I had seen The Metropol; it is famous and centrally located, so I picked that hotel, and began to invent the story from there.”

Amor is a delightful conversationalist. I sense that he shares the charm and civility of his protagonist, but when I ask if this is the case, I’m met with a tirade.

He sounds off about the tendency of readers, and some critics to assume that a writer is creating work from his own experience. And this, he states, is the bi-product of the explosion, in the 60s, of books by black American writers, gay writers, and Asian Americans.

“It was great for the American canon that all these voices were suddenly being given an outlet. They were expanding our knowledge of the language, the themes and the people.

"That was terrific. But the side effect is of readers thinking writers should write about where they are from.

“If you were Shakespeare you invented characters. We don’t spend time wondering if Shakespeare was Hamlet, Othello or Iago. And we benefit from the fact that Othello, Juliette and Shylock ate radically different people.

The important things, is that they are brought to life in a way that matters to us,” he says.

He has a problem with the received wisdom of creative writing programmes in America.

“For 40 years the thing has been, ‘write about what you know’. We have gone way too far with that piece of advice. As a novelist I am interested in mining my interests.

"I enjoy writing about the things I am already fascinated in, whether that is a country, a painting, a cuisine or a philosophical notion.”

Although A Man in Moscow is newly released in Ireland, it has been out in America since last September, so Amor has already done a great deal of publicity for the book.

“Since September I have spoken 50 times in the USA, in 20 different states. It’s a big investment of time and energy, but it’s part of the process.

“The way I look at it, if you spend four years writing a book, you should be willing to spend a year helping the book find its audience. Then again, if the book has not been well received, you should skip the tour and write the next book.”

With his business background, Amor understands this more than most authors.

“I am much more conscious about who the people are in this intricate process. In what role they play; what they bring to it and what they take from it. As a business analyst I can’t help but look at it that way,” he says.

With the next book sketched out — Amor is looking forwards to the writing process. The next book is about three 18-year-old boys on their way to Kansas from New York City in 1952.

“And that’s as much as I will tell you.”

What, I wonder, did his two children, a son of 15 and daughter of 11, make of it when their father started working from home.

“Everyone was excited initially, but then it started to drive them crazy. I became too involved in their lives. Eventually it was, ‘okay, Dad, stand back’.”

As for his wife — she is launching her own business is June.

“And I think that’s probably in response to the fact that I am around too much!”

So through leaving his business he forced her into hers? “Exactly,” he says.

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