“If a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.” That was the advice Alexander absorbed as a ten-year-old and the advice that he later passed on to his beloved Sofia. Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs on 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov not only gives up being addressed as “Your Excellency,” but also surrenders the privilege of going outdoors. (I would go bonkers.) Raised on a idyllic estate on the Volga River, 260 miles east of Moscow, he is now confined to an attic room one hundred feet square. His family is deceased; almost all his friends and his treasured antiques are gone. His beribboned jacket is replaced by a waiter’s white coat. Even his proud, aristocratic mustache is rudely clipped off by a Bolshevik brute.
Over the course of thirty-two years, however, Alexander’s gains outweigh his losses. He cleverly expands his quarters, makes new friends, and creates his own family, while maintaining his bearing and keeping up his daily exercises. Accepting Montaigne’s instruction that “the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness,” he gives into despair just once, on the fourth anniversary of his imprisonment. It was easy to fall in love with this man, as did one willowy actress. I loved that he appreciated good food and wine, read Tolstoy, and recognized works by Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. He has inspired me to keep up my daily exercises, improve my posture, and re-read Russian novels.
The book is exquisitely crafted. I dare to compare it with Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, which begins, just as the novel does, with a grave, dramatic introduction. The exposition then continues con brio, with two more themes. Each theme is developed with care, just as are the characters in the book. The middle movement of the Sonata is the well-known Adagio Cantabile, full of love and tenderness, but with some sinister challenges, much like Alexander’s story. The final movement is a spirited Allegro which features a melodic motif from the first movement, just as in the book, Alexander appears with a “rucksack on his back” twice–as a young man on page 13; then in his sixties, on page 460.
Ticking clocks in Towles’ composition measure the days at the Metropol, while Moscow’s summer solstices (“white nights” at latitude 55.7558° N) mark the passage of years. By 1798, when the 27-year-old Beethoven composed the Pathétique, he had recently realized that he was going deaf. In 1922, at the age of 32, Alexander was sentenced to a life of house arrest. Each was able to adjust to and master dire circumstances.
Every chapter title begins with “A.” Is the author hinting that any true gentleman could have coped as well as Alexander? Or is he implying that Alexander deserves an A-plus? I heard this novel first as an Audible book, then bought a hard cover edition the first time I had a chance. Like Beethoven’s Opus 13, it is a work of art to treasure.