Friday, May 5, 2017

A comparison of Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow

I recently read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
(Penguin, 2016) which I consider the best, new adult novel I have read in years. I followed it up with his first book, Rules of Civility.

Here is my take on both.

First - the most basic differences:

Rules - spans one year
Gentleman - spans one adult lifetime
Rules - social climber
Gentleman - social outcast
Rules - Manhattan
Gentleman - Metropol Hotel, Moscow
Rules - female protagonist
Gentleman - male protagonist

My takeaway: Become the master of your circumstances or they will master you.

The protagonists in Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow manage their circumstances with aplomb, however, the characters could not be more different. One's fortunes are ascendant, the other's—quite the opposite. Both protagonists are smart, well-read, and appreciative of life's finer things.

Rules of Civility spans a single year—1938 in New York City. The young secretary, Katherine Kontent, can recognize a custom-made suit, an expensive lighter, or a fine glass of liquor because she aspires to have fine things. A Gentleman in Moscow spans a tumultuous period in Russian history—from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Cold War. It takes place within the confines of the fictionalized Metropol Hotel in Moscow, where Count Alexander Rostov has been sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest. He, too, can easily recognize a custom-made suit or a fine glass of liquor—not because he aspires to have them, but because he had always had them.

Katherine (Katey) is a woman who enjoy life's smaller pleasures. She enjoys people-watching, a well-written book, a well-timed phrase or gesture. But her enjoyment is fleeting—a moment marked in time, appreciated, and discarded without sentimentality.

The Count enjoys similar simple pleasures—but he savors them, appreciating that it is these small joys that make a life worth living. Although his fortunes literally and figuratively spiral downward, his spirit and joie de vivre are rarely diminished. At the worst of times, he finds pleasure in the most basic events.

 The Count has deep, genuine, and lasting connections with those people he counts among his friends—be they cook, revolutionary, poet or child. Katey, too, appreciates her friends, but in a more offhand manner—seeking or eschewing their company as it suits her mood or needs. Still, each has an ethic that suits his/her particular place and time.

Amor Towles' writing is replete with short literary passages that are worth reading on their own. That he has filled two historical fiction novels with thought-provoking commentary of literary quality is impressive. The words of a young girl in pre-WWII Manhattan and a disgraced aristocrat in post-revolutionary Russia jump off the page and insert themselves in the modern world in a way that is urgent and immediate, and not without surprises.

I know that I am late to the party and both books have garnered numerous awards, but I would like to add my hearty recommendation of Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. I cannot wait to see what Amor Towles will offer next!

2 comments:

  1. I like your thoughts, but a couple of corrections: The protagonist's name in Civility in Katie Kontent, not Konstant, and the Metropol Hotel is a real hotel; it's not fictional (http://metropol-moscow.ru/en/)

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    1. I guess I should never proofread my own work! I have an acquaintance with that last name and must have typed it in subconsciously! Thanks for the catch. I'll go back and correct it. As for the hotel, I meant a fictionalized version of the hotel, but I can see that it's ambiguous. Again, thanks for your comments.

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