Amor Towles’ second historical novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, immerses readers in the fluctuating world of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in 1922 by the Bolsheviks. A tribunal finds that Rostov has “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class.” Covering nearly four decades, the serpentine tale chronicles the droll count’s adventures, along with the sinister shadows of Kremlin politics. Our reviewer called the elegant work, which earned a Kirkus Star, “a masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history,” deeming that it “more than fulfills the promise of Towles’ stylish debut, Rules of Civility.” The author, a former principal in a New York investment firm, lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.
Your new novel’s myriad Russian details, from the nobility’s embrace of dueling to the wide range of literary references and the descriptions of Bolshoi dancers, are striking. How did you research the story?
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.
This is your second novel set in the first half of the 20th century. What is the nature of your interest in that period?
While I have written two novels set in the past, I am in no way trying to add to the historical record. After all, we don’t turn to Shakespeare’s Henry V to gain a precise understanding of the Hundred Years War, or even the Battle of Agincourt. We understand that Shakespeare has drawn loosely from the chronicles in order to set his tale within the contours of history. His primary goal is to communicate poetically the thoughts, sentiments, and interactions of his characters—and in so doing, to give us a glimpse of the human condition in a manner that is both universal and timeless. This is the artistic tradition from which I write and to which I aspire. As a novelist, what has attracted me to the early 20th century in particular is that it has a proximate distance to the present. It is near enough in time that it seems familiar to most readers, but far enough away that they have no firsthand knowledge of what it was like. This provides me with a lot of creative latitude. In that era I can invoke both the unbelievably actual and the convincingly imagined in the service of my tale.
Although you reference some historical figures in the narrative, the main characters are fictional. Who were the inspirations for the Count?
In the 19th century, the members of the European aristocracies tended to have more in common with each other than with their own countrymen. They had overlapping educations, forms of etiquette, and values. Thus in the pages of Tolstoy, we see Austrians, Poles, and Frenchmen of “high” birth fluidly navigating the St. Petersburg ballrooms together. While my protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is an invention with his own flaws, talents, and idiosyncrasies, he is also representative of that 19th-century European aristocratic class. Because he was born in Russia in 1890, however, he must watch as his world is swept aside simultaneously by a proletarian revolution and the advances of the 20th century. Some years ago, I bought a 19th century portrait of an unknown figure in a Paris arcade. Ever since, that painting has hung on the wall by my desk. So, I suppose the count is also based a little on him.
Can you talk about your decision to write a book set almost entirely inside a hotel?
While paying an annual visit to a hotel in Geneva as an investment professional back in 2009, I recognized people lingering in the lobby from the year before—as if they’d never left. An hour later in my room, I was sketching out the notion of a book in which a Russian count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Certainly part of the reason this premise attracted me was the challenge of creating a compelling narrative confined within the four walls of a single building. As a writer, you can get a certain amount of creative energy by accepting such constraints. While I certainly don’t compare myself to Melville, he is pursuing a similar strategy in Moby-Dick. Once Ishmael and we, as readers, board the Pequod, we don’t get off again for over 500 pages. Yet, through allusions, memories, analyses, and a poetic investigation of human nature, Melville brings the world onto the ship. See also Thoreau’s Walden, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, or Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
How did you end up writing fiction after more than 20 years in the investment field?
The fiction came first. I began writing fiction as a kid and continued doing so through high school, college, and graduate school. In my 20s in New York, I took a job as an analyst at an investment firm in order to make ends meet, and ended up staying for 21 years. It was a terrific profession with a terrific group of people, but I knew that if I didn’t eventually return to my childhood passion, I would end up with a healthy dose of self-loathing. So in my mid-30s, I returned to my craft, spending seven years of weekends on a free-ranging novel that I ultimately didn’t like. Moving on from that experience, I wrote Rules of Civility in my early 40s. With that book’s success, I tendered my resignation as an investment professional at the end of 2012 and now—with deep gratitude to my former colleagues, my readers, and the good Lord—I write full time.
Myra Forsberg is an Indie editor.