How much do I love this novel? When I scanned the first page to get the dates right, I ended up reading half of the first chapter before I realized what I was doing.
On the first day of Summer 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was taken from his suite at the Hotel Metropol in downtown Moscow to a tribunal at the Kremlin. He was found guilty of being a man of leisure, an Aristocrat who had “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat…” It is only because of a poem he wrote after the failed Russian revolution in 1905 that he is not executed. Instead he is banished back to the Metropol. However, If he ever sets foot outside the hotel he will be shot. He is forcibly moved from his elegant suite to a small room in the attic.
“Having acknowledged that a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them, the Count thought it worth considering how one was most likely to achieve this aim when one had been sentenced to a life of confinement.” [p 28]
This beautiful novel covers his life and the events in Russia for the 30+ years from 1922 through 1954. Count Rostov does indeed master his circumstances. Along with making friends with many of the employees at the hotel, he builds relationships with three women. The first is the little girl Nina who is staying at the hotel and approaches the Count asking why he cut off his “mustaches”. Unexpectedly, she opens many doors enabling the Count to expand his world.
This novel succeeds in three ways. First, there is an underlying tension that ripples through the book. In addition to the problems in Russia which affect his life, Alexander Rostov is beset by the “Bishop” an inept man who is promoted from being a terrible waiter at the elegant Boyarsky dining room to more advanced positions due to his Communist Party connections. Those interactions, and others with Party members, become more problematic as the story progresses. Confinement is a constant problem:
Parting with the cat on the fifth floor, the Count trudged up the steps of the belfry in woeful acknowledgment that the celebration of his [first anniversary of confinement] had been a fiasco. Having set out to gamely etch his mark on the wall, the wall had etched its mark on him.” [p 124]
Nevertheless, the Count is resilient and continues to work toward mastering his circumstances and masters each difficulty that he encounters.
Second we get an inside view of communist Russia. As a child I remember hearing stories of the problems in Russia stemming from the collectivization of the farms and the famine that resulted.
“‘Do you know that back in ’30, when they announced the mandatory collectivization of farming, half our peasants slaughtered their own livestock rather than give them up to the cooperatives? Fourteen million head of cattle left to the buzzards and flies.’
‘How can we understand this, [Alexander]? What is it about a nation that would foster a willingness in its people to destroy their own artworks, ravabe their own cities, and kill their own progeny without compunction?'” [p 290]
This theme of Russia looking inward rather than outward as America does is revisited throughout the novel. It is noteworthy that Rostov was exiled within Russia rather than exiled. In fact other people in the story are banished within Russia, able to go anywhere but the six largest cities or outside the country.
Finally, the narrative is beautifully written and matches the Count’s rich life. In this passage Rostov, with a friend who has also experienced setbacks, reflects on the life of those who have fallen from privilege.
“Or, like the Count and Anna, one may simply join the Confederacy of the Humbled. Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.” [p 196]
And upon meeting an old friend who has stolen back in town to see the count we have this beautiful vision of the vastness of Russia.
‘I arrived this morning from Yavas by train. I’ll be returning to Yavas later tonight.’’
‘Yavas… where is that?’
‘Somewhere between where the wheat is grown and the bread is eaten.'” [p 288]
Many of the details throughout the novel come up again toward the end. Not only do those events and objects set a scene in their chapters, they come together at the end of the story.
When my yoga friend Jan recommended this book to me she said it is especially relevant in this time of COVID: the Count’s confinement echoes our social distancing. Like the Count we must constantly strive to make the most of the cards we are dealt. Interestingly, I read this in a week when our air turned hazardous from the smoke of wildfires that kept us inside the house. I read the bulk of the novel on an evening when our power went out. Thankfully I had my fully charged Kindle to keep me company in the dark.
Read this book. It’s not just my opinion; it was picked as the best book of the year by NPR, The Washington Post and more.