Idea For 'Gentleman In Moscow' Came From Many Nights In Luxury Hotels

Sep 6, 2016
Originally published on September 6, 2016 11:03 am

During the two decades he spent working for an investment firm, Amor Towles visited a lot of luxury hotels. One night, he was in Geneva at a hotel where he'd stayed many times before — and he noticed some familiar faces in the lobby. Towles realized they were people who actually lived there and thought to himself, "Oh that's kind of an interesting notion for a book."

That was the beginning of A Gentleman in Moscow, the story of a Russian aristocrat who is sentenced by the Bolsheviks during the revolution to a lifetime of house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel. It's Towles' second novel — his first, Rules of Civility, hit the bestseller list in 2011, and he quit his day job to write full time.

For his new book, Towles says he knew from the outset that his main character had to be confined to a hotel against his will — and it had to be Russia keeping him there. "Russia has a history of house arrest over hundreds of years," he says. And a luxury hotel seemed like a "perfect spot" for an individual to be trapped as Moscow changed all around him.

Count Alexander Rostov is in his 30s when he is ordered to live his life at the Metropol. He is moved from his luxury quarters to a dark, tiny room in the attic. It's a long way down for the Count.

"He's a man of manners, he's a man of culture," Towles explains. "He was used to fine things, and days with plenty of empty hours, and people bringing things to him. ... You get to see him go through the transformation of rediscovering life and maybe even getting closer to life as those benefits are behind him."

At first the count's life revolves around eating and drinking. Then he meets a young girl named Nina who is living at the hotel with her father. And like another fictional little girl who grew up in another famous hotel Nina has explored every nook and cranny of the Metropol.

"When I invented Nina I thought: Oh she'll be kind of like the Eloise of the Metropol," Towles says. "She is the daughter of a widowed Bolshevik, and sort of has the run of the hotel and treats the hotel as her personal domain. ... She helps him kind of unlock the hotel — that it can be a universe, a much richer place to live than you'd think."

The book tracks the Count's life from the Revolution to the Cold War — 30 years of tumultuous history taking place on the doorstep of the hotel. Towles had to find a way to bring these events to life from the perspective of someone stuck in a hotel.

"Those who work in the hotel, those who visit the hotel, they are experiencing those forces firsthand ... " he says. "And we can glean some of the pressures they are under from how they behave. ... People lose family members in the course of the war, characters are arrested. This is all happening outside the hotel but it's a part of the life."

Slowly, the count builds a full life within the confines of the hotel. Here's how Towles thinks of it: Imagine a luxurious family banquet table, filled with food. Slowly, the state takes away one luxury after another, until the only thing left on the table is bread and salt.

"There is a will to joy ... " he says. "If I get down to just bread and salt — which is a Russian term for it — the family will still celebrate. ... There will be laughter and love and compassion and problems as well around that table and so the book is kind of an exploration of that."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many writers have day jobs. William Carlos Williams was a doctor when he wasn't writing about how much depends on a red wheelbarrow.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The poet Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. And then there's Amor Towles. He spent 20 years managing other people's money.

INSKEEP: And then his first novel, "Rules Of Civility," hit the best-seller list. NPR's Lynn Neary reports that success freed him up to work full-time on his second novel.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: During his 20 years with an investment firm, Amor Towles spent a lot of time in luxury hotels. One night at a hotel in Geneva, where he had stayed many times, Towles noticed some familiar faces in the lobby. And he realized they were people who actually lived there.

AMOR TOWLES: And I just sort of thought to myself, this is a nice hotel, but can you imagine actually having to live here? And I thought, oh, that's kind of an interesting notion for a book.

NEARY: That was the beginning of Towles' new book, "A Gentleman In Moscow," the story of a Russian aristocrat who is sentenced by the Bolsheviks during the revolution to a lifetime of house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel. Towles says he knew right away that the main character had to be confined to a hotel against his will.

TOWLES: And I knew it had to be Russia. Russia has a history of house arrest over hundreds of years. It seemed like such an interesting landscape to have an individual who's trapped in a luxury hotel because, as we all know, the world changed radically in Moscow over the course of that 30-year period. So it seemed like the perfect spot.

NEARY: Count Alexander Rostov is in his 30s when he's ordered to live his life at the Metropol. He's moved from his luxury quarters there to a dark, tiny room in the attic. It is, says Towles, a long way down for the count.

TOWLES: He's a man of manners. He's a man of culture. And he was used to fine things and days with plenty of empty hours and, you know, people bringing things to him. And, you know, that's certainly a part of his character. And you get to see him go through the transformation of rediscovering life and maybe even getting closer to life as those benefits are behind him, but the memories are still there.

NEARY: In this excerpt, as the count moves out of his luxury suite, he looks around at all the things endowed with so much meaning that he's leaving behind.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) This armoire, we're prone to recall, is the very one in which hid as a boy. And it was the silver candelabra that lined our table on Christmas Eve. And it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears, et cetera, et cetera, until we imagined that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion. But of course, a thing is just a thing. And so, slipping his sister's scissors into his pocket, the count looked once more at what heirlooms remained and then expunged them from his heartache forever.

NEARY: At first, the count's life revolves around eating and drinking. Then he meets a young girl named Nina, who's living at the hotel with her father. And like another fictional little girl who grew up in another famous hotel, the Plaza, Nina has explored every nook and cranny of the Metropol.

TOWLES: When I invented Nina, I thought, oh, she'll be kind of like the Eloise, you know, of the Metropol. I mean, she is the daughter of a widowed Bolshevik and sort of has the run of the hotel and treats the hotel as her personal domain. She helps him kind of unlock the hotel as a much richer place to live than you'd think.

NEARY: The book tracks the count's life from the Revolution to the Cold War, thirty years of tumultuous history taking place on the doorstep of the hotel. And Towles had to find a way to bring these events to life.

TOWLES: I stick largely in the hotel, but those who work in the hotel, those who visit the hotel, they are experiencing those forces firsthand. And we can glean some of the pressures that they're under from how they behave through the fact that, you know, certain people lose family members in the course of the war. Characters are arrested. You know, this is all happening outside the hotel, but it's - it's a part of the life.

NEARY: Eventually the count gets a job, takes on a lover. And in the novel's richest plot twist, he ends up as the guardian of another young girl. In these and other relationships, Towles says, the count builds a full life within the confines of the hotel.

TOWLES: There is a will to joy. And I like to think of it as you take a banquet table filled with all these foods, and I start, as the state, taking away one luxury or another after - off that table. If I get down to just bread and salt, which is sort of a Russian term for it, the family will still celebrate, and there'll be laughter and love and compassion. And so the book is kind of an exploration of that.

NEARY: Though he likes to write about the past, Towles says he's not driven by historical research. He prefers instead to play in that spot that lies between what is real and what is imagined. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.