One perk of interviewing English teachers is asking this bog standard question:
So, what are you reading at the moment?
Bored with the responses, a couple of years ago I began asking what they would recommend the most, or had gifted the most, to others. (tip of the hat to Tim Ferriss here).
This question has led to some great discoveries, none more so than a book so perfect for the time, it is frightening.
Over summer, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow captivated me, shooting to the apex of my absolute favourite reads and recommendations.
Now, in the light of our global forced isolation, it feels like a book written exactly for the times.
Beyond this – we NEED to read this book.
For in Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, ‘recipient of the Order of St Andrew, Member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt’, we may find no greater role model for enduring forced seclusion.
As punishment for being declared an ‘unrepentant aristocrat’, Rostov is confined to house arrest in the elegant Hotel Metropol, Moscow. Understanding that leaving the hotel will result in certain death at the hands of the Soviet regime, The Count lives out the next 32 years in the attic room set aside for him by management.
To say he is charming is an understatement, and for this alone this novel is a worthy read. Witty, erudite and engaging, he is masterfully constructed by Towles.
More importantly, he is a man who refuses to give in to the slings and arrows flung at him by fortune. Over the length of house arrest, every semblance of who he was before the revolution is attacked in some way by fate and circumstance.
Rostov is confronted with problem after problem and tackles each one with the assured confidence of someone who finds the best in each dire circumstance. Even when low, he finds ways to let light guide him.
As time passes, Rostov is forced to use every ounce of ingenuity and guile to overcome greater and greater challenges as his very identity as a gentleman and core values are frequently attacked.
Yet he barely wavers. Moreover, he finds a way to put others first and live his values, even under the greatest strain. He loves and is loved against a backdrop of turmoil and confinement.
As life in Soviet Russia continues to insist he shed the gentlemanly aspects of his nature, he holds the line. Rostov keeps himself from the darkness by taking joy in simple pleasures. Each time he might give in to melancholy, or feel sorry for himself, he chooses another way.
Which is the very joy in reading this novel. As we find our lives temporarily reduced and affected, confined to out homes, there seems great solace in knowing his example is there waiting for us.
As James Clear says in his excellent Atomic Habits, every action we take is a vote for the kind of person we want to be.
Taking this further, in a world full of chaos and uncertainty. Rostov’s belief that ‘By the smallest of one’s actions, one can restore some sense of order to the world’, might act as a tiny part of the road map for negotiating this time, unheralded.
This novel will make you feel good about all kinds of things, which is why I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Order it, read it, explore and share the joy.