This is a modern form of the tales of Scheherazade, and not a work of historical fiction. In both Arabian Nights and A Gentleman In Moscow, there’s a telling of a series of stories while imprisoned, with the principal question lingering: will the storyteller ever be free? Many stories reoccur throughout the narratives in repeating motifs. They include historical facts, poems and songs. The author of this book mentions, in sly passing, Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” That stayed with me, like the tinkling of that dinner bell, heard only once, but resonating with meaning. And finally, we human beings tell ourselves stories while all the time our lives move inexorably toward the end.
This book has an architectural character, with layer upon layer – story upon story – perfectly suited to a story of a life spent in a hotel. These stories, told by the raconteur Count Alexander Rostov, wind through the hallways, up and down stairs, onto the roof, into the cellar, and through all the rooms, bringing him into contact with the diverse population to be found in a hotel.
What interested me most was the emphasis on poetry. Poetry, he says, is always a call to action. He seeks out the poetic in life, and he gains stability and meaning from it. He notes the tie to action in his friend the poet’s case, and this friendship connects him actively to the plight of those less fortunate. Without this connection, this involvement, with the truly oppressed, Rostov is a cardboard cut-out of a person, less human by far than a Former Person.
The book is written in proper prose, reflecting its subject, who lives with a heightened sense of propriety within the limited scope of his class, of honor, and a defined code of conduct. Within that framework he makes adjustments. His occupations, though he doesn’t call or recognize them as such, are to read, reflect, dine, and discuss. He avoids bitterness through action, using his skills and his wits, and through self-reflection (so necessary for survival with dignity). He “sparked” conversations, and had “an instinctive awareness of all the temperaments in the room.” His ability to engage with other people is his saving grace (as with Scheherazade).
Glimpses of the changes taking place in Russia appear in the form of a friend and a girl, both of whom become exiles in their own country. Neither will compromise, while Rostov does make what appear, to the other person or people involved, to be compromises. He has a different kind of courage, grounded in sureness of his identity. The destruction of personal identity is going on around him throughout the book. Historical and cultural identity is being revised. Would survival be easier for members of the aristocracy when all is taken away from them, or for peasant farmers who are suddenly enfranchised (or promised enfranchisement) but never owned anything, except a few hard-earned possessions, never had time for contemplation, and for whom the life and health of family was a continual struggle?
While many of the life lessons in the book are not unique or original, they are very pertinent to the story. Of them, I thought this one of the more relevant to modern life. “From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family.” But our possessions are “invested” with memories and give us solace – but “a thing is just a thing.” Rostov learns to “expunge them from his heartache forever.”
We can’t hold onto our homes, our possessions, even our families, because they can all be gone in a minute, or a decade; all we can do is keep our noble sense of purpose intact within ourselves and act accordingly, but with the good sense to increase our chances of survival.
Ultimately, this book is a modern fairy tale, which is most clearly illustrated by its ending.