A Gentleman in Moscow


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Right off the table of contents I knew this would be A fun book because All the titles of each chapter start with "A".  There are A lot of chapters so that is not A small feat.  There are also A lot of Allusions to great/classic literature and A lot of Alliteration. So not only does he name all his chapters beginning with "A", he favors literary devices that begin with "A".

I thought it would be like the Tom Hanks film The Terminal when he was stuck in the airport because while he had been in flight his country had ceased to exist so he couldn't enter the U.S. legally because he wasn't coming from anywhere.  In this book the Count gets sentenced to stay in the hotel as a result of being on the wrong side of the government.  Like the character played by Hanks, he establishes a routine and makes some strong friendships, despite his limited conditions.

Oddly, in between the selection of this book and the actual book club meeting we experienced the Corona pandemic and many of us remained inside our homes for extended periods of time.  Perhaps it felt like 30 years but was really more like two months (maybe more if it gets extended).  Since this club began in 2009 there has only been one month in which no meeting occurred.  So, in the face of the pandemic, we moved our meeting to Skype.

The book begins when Count Rostov is almost 33 and ends when he is in his mid to late 60's.
After four years, a young girl arrives on the scene of the hotel and turns the hotel, that the Count thought he knew so well, upside down, adding more spice to the Count's days than Emile ever could.

There are historical characters scattered throughout the novel however, for me personally, I didn't realize all of them because I'm not as familiar with Russian history as I recognize characters when I read "The Fiery Cross" by Diana Gabaldon which is fiction set in the founding of the American colonies.  One such example is Walter Duranty, referenced on pg. 227 (loc. 3552).

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 2

Religion: 0

Gruesome:  0

Suspense:  1

Morality:  4

Traditional: 3


Sex - woman seduces man; we read of kiss, discarding of blouse, and the retrieval of clothes after the event. (Pg. 122 - 123)  Count has encounters with the same woman across many years.(Pg. 191, loc. 2968)  Most of the time there is enough context to know that something happened but the details are not provided. (Pg. 199, loc. 3102)

Religion - the count thinks most people believe in something other than religion.  He believes in meteorological effects. (1926 Adieu, Pg. 146, loc. 2319)  Allusion - first man exiled was Adam, then Cain (Pg. 164)  He obviously doesn't attend church on a regular basis - nor does he comment that he misses it.

Gruesome - nothing stands out, there was an accident requiring a trip to the hospital but I don't even recall the injury and much less any blood

Suspense - late in the novel it was apparent that there was some sort of subterfuge going on.  I was curious but did not find it suspenseful.

Morality - the Count was humble, a loyal friend, and a good role model.

Traditional - in 1926 - Adieu it seemed like the Count was going to commit suicide.  (I peeked ahead to be sure - something I almost NEVER do in a book.)

I found it a bit odd that the author frequently commented on the Count's "moustaches".  I don't know why it was plural.  Even on wikipedia, there was no evidence that this is a plural word, no matter the style of moustache.  I imagine that he had a gap under the nose, between the left and right side so that it looked like two individual parts but even those styles (they are named) are singular.

There are bits of dry humor such as when a woman said "whoa" to an out of control dog and the Count observed that the dogs were "apparently unfamiliar with equine commands". (Pg. 111, loc. 1753)  The one I most appreciated, and often reflected on throughout the novel, was on page 101 (loc. 1630):  You cannot pick up a work of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Turgenev without bumping into an Anna, an Andrey, or an Alexander.  Thus it must be with some trepidation that our Western reader meets any new character in a Russian novel - knowing that in the remote chance this character plays an important role in future chapters, he must now stop and commit the name to memory.  As such, I think it only fair to inform you now that while Prince Nikolai Petrov has agreed to meet the Count on Saturday night for a drink, he will not be keeping the appointment....(loc. 1667) Petrov, I should note that despite the brief appearance of a round-faced fellow with a receding hairline a chapter hence, he is someone you should commit to memory, for years later he will have great bearing on the outcome of this tale.  So every time I met a character, I wondered if I needed to commit them to memory.  The character that I underestimated was Mr. Richard Vanderwhile - I should have paid more attention to him.  
I also felt like I needed to pay attention to the name of the cat...I felt like he changed the name each time he referred to the cat.  On pg. 102 it was Herr Drosselmeyer.  On pg. 110 it was Field Marshal Kutuzov.

One thing that definitely changed was the font size in the eBook.  Even within a section the size of the font would be smaller and bigger with no apparent rhyme or reason.

Discussion Questions

"Long had he believed that a gentleman should turn to a mirror with a sense of distrust. For rather than being tools of self-discovery, mirrors tended to be tools of self-deceit.  (9%)  Does your mirror show your flaws or how good you look?

Nina agreed to work on her posture and be courteous when she asked for things, but she insisted she did not need to say thank you when offered something she had not asked for. (12%)  Do you think a thank you is necessary in that situation?

When the Count was in Mr. Halecki's office alone, because Mr. Halecki had gone out to speak to Arkady, the count reflected on "carefully crafted things that have outlived their usefulness". (Pg. 76, loc. 1250)  (example:  honorific names, hunting horns, silver summoners, mother-of-pearl opera glasses)  Can you name some recent examples?  It was also at this time that the Count opened the secret panel in the wall - to which he commented "marvelous".  What did you think he'd found? (Pg. 76, loc. 1251.)

The Count thought, "To what end, ..., had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?" (pg. 125)  Which is it for you, inspiration or insignificance?

Why was Anna Urbanova (the actress) so annoyed that the Count had picked up her blouse? (Addendum Pg. 129)

The Count felt that exile at home was worse than exile to another country. (Pg. 164)  What do you think?

While reflecting on his friend Mishka's broken heart due to Katerina leaving him for another man, the Count thinks, "That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only our heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love." (Pg. 184, loc. 2864)  - So, in modern English, it is only our heartbreak that contradicts all that is transitory in love".  The Count thinks this is how it should be.  So - the Count believes our heart break should last forever?  Do you agree?  Why or why not?

Were you surprised that the count became employed as a waiter?  

The Count was worried when Nina was going to go pursue her cause.  He discussed it with Marina who told him, "...even if she is single-minded to a fault, you must trust that life will find her in time.  For eventually, it finds us all." (Pg. 189, loc. 2954)  What do you think Marina meant by this?

"The Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance.  For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective.  Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed.  They are not quick to envy or take offense.  They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names.  They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile." (Pg. 196, loc. 3060)  Were Anna and the Count a good match because they were both humbled?

When Osip and the Count are discussing "Democracy in America" by de Tocqueville (Pg. 259, loc. 4040), they both agree that "There is not, ..., a single country in the civilized world where less attention is paid to philosophy than in the United States."  What are your thoughts about how Americans feel about philosophy?

Osip told the Count, "Hollywood is the single most dangerous force in the history of class struggle." (Pg. 294, loc. 4592)  Do you agree?  Why or why not?

Richard told the Count, "that as a species we're just no good at writing obituaries.  We don't know how a man or his achievements will be perceived three generations from now, any more than we know what his great-great-grandchildren will be having for breakfast on a Tuesday in March.  Because when Fate hands something down to posterity, it does so behind its back." (Pg. 302, loc. 4723)  How do you feel when you see an obituary that extols numerous virtues on an unknown person?  Can you think of anybody who had a great impact on history but had a very modest obituary?

When the Count left the hotel and went to the hospital, did you think he would get caught? (Pg. 304, loc. 4757)  Why was the scene important to the story?  How would the story have been different if he didn't go to the hospital?  Or if he'd gotten caught?

Book 4 begins with the Count contemplating life - aging produces less memories - time flies.  Is this the cost of allowing our kids to fly and make their own memories?

Richard asked the Count, indirectly, to spy for him.  The Count replied, "I am no more inclined to gossip than I am to spy.  So, let's not speak of this again and we shall remain the best of friends."  (Pg. 347, loc. 5379)  What was your interpretation of this scene?  Did you think the Count had made a wise decision?

The Count told Anna, "I know there is something quixotic in dreaming of the Former, but when all is said and done, if the Former is even a remote possibility, then how can one submit to the likelihood of the Latter?  To do so would be contrary to the human spirit.  So fundamental is our desire to catch a glimpse of another way of life, or to share a glimpse of our way of life with another, that even when the forces of the Latter have bolted the city's doors, the forces of the Former will find a means to slip through the cracks." (Pg. 350, loc. 5416) What is your interpretation of this passage?  Do you agree with the Count?

The Count reflects that he had a life full of conveniences (sleeping until noon, breakfast in bed, carriage at the ready, never married, no kids) but says, "in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most." (Pg. 352, loc. 5451)  What are your conveniences and inconveniences?  Which matter more to you? 

The Count says, "...it is the role of the parent to express his concerns and then take three steps back." (Pg. 358, loc. 5539)  "Or maybe four.  (But by no means five.)  Yes, a parent should share his hesitations and then take three or four steps back, so that the child can make a decision by herself - even when that decision may lead to disappointment." (Pg. 358, loc. 5540)  Does that style work for you?

After the piano competition, when all the friends were celebrating in the Count's secret room, Manager Leplevsky came to call on the Count and the friends had to remain quiet so as not to be discovered.  (Pg. 363, loc. 5624)  Why was the room still a secret after 25 years?

The Count "took the greatest satisfaction when assuring a friend that a worldly matter could wait in favor of a leisurely lunch or a stroll... When all was said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains), probably could have waited, while those they deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention." (Pg. 391)  Which do you value more - the urgent or the frivolous?

What did you think the Count was up to when he asked Mr. Webster to deliver a letter to his friend in Paris?  (Pg. 398, loc. 6125)

The Count told Sophia, "...our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity - a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the thresh-hold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along." (Book 5 Apotheoses, Pg. 441)

When Viktor watched Casablanca (Afterwords Pg. 459), does Rick setting the glass upright after seemingly being unaffected by Ugarte's arrest indicate that Rick believes little actions "can restore some sense of order to the world"?

SPOILER ALERT:
Why did the Count not go to America?  What prompted him to send Sofia?  Did he meet Anna in the end?

Theme Ideas

Tape a 10' x 10' square on the floor and hold your meeting inside the boundaries to replicate the size of the Count's official room. (pg. 62)

Give your guests opera glassesOpera glasses are mentioned several times throughout the book - Nina was very impressed by them. (Pg. 94, loc. 1533)

Nina and Boris experimented with: an egg, a teacup, a billiard ball, a dictionary and a pineapple (and a coin that pinged).  (Pg. 152 - 153)  The reported sounds were: ping, splat, smash, thunk, thump, thud.  Play a matching game - object to sound.  (Count liked the teacup smash.)

Place "bread and salt on the table - that ancient Russian symbol of hospitality." (Pg. 287)

The Count's friend (Mishka) listed a famous painting particular to a country.  Decorate your coffee table with replicas of these paintings: French - Liberty Leading the People (Delacroix), Dutch - Night Watch (Rembrandt), America - Washington Crossing the Delaware (Leutze), Russia - Peter the Great Interrogating Alexei (Nikolai Ge) and Ivan the Terrible and His Son (Ilya Repin). (Pg. 290, loc. 4523)

Play "zut" (Pg. 339) as the Count and Sofia did in 1952 America after ordering dinner.

Watch Casablanca (Pg. 423)

Serve:

Playlist:
  • Mazurka (dance music) like they would have ten years ago in the ballroom (Pg. 66)
  • accordion music, "jaunty little melody reminiscent of an English carol" (Pg. 94, loc. 1527)
  • an accordion version of a song from the Nutcracker with a "Spanish flair" (Pg. 95, loc. 1555)
    • this probably refers to Act II Sc. 12 Chocolate song
  • Bach like the Prince played at dinner parties (Pg. 99, loc. 1616)
  • jazz, as its return was noted in Absinthe (Pg. 213)
  • "Yes, We Have no Bananas" (Pg. 216, loc. 3375) like the American played on the piano
  • Chopin's Opus 9 No 2 in E flat Major (Pg. 325)
  • Mozart's Piano sonata No 1 in C major (Pg. 357, loc. 5527) like the Count hummed while waiting to hear how Sofia performed at the piano competition
  • Mozart from Cosi Fan Tutte, like when the Count ran down to the Bishop's office and got the gun (Pg. 433)

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