A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

“Popular upheaval, political turmoil, industrial progress- any combination of these can cause the evolution of a society to leapfrog generations, sweeping aside aspects of the past that might otherwise have lingered for decades. And this must be especially so, when those with newfound power are men who distrust any form of hesitation or nuance, and who prize self-assurance above all.”

This historical novel is ostensibly about Russia. However, it was penned by an American who may have been distracted by events closer to home. It might be a homage to Russian literature, but it is also an attack on totalitarianism. While the latter concept, associated with Hannah Arendt, is not the most precise in philosophical terms, A Gentleman in Moscow is an imprecise text.

The reader can find buckets of entertainment in the epic tale. A gentle humour plays among its pages. Any pretentiousness is lightened by the absurd plot.

One does think of the plight of Julian Assange in the more claustrophobic passages of the book. But one is then diverted by copious references to Chekhov, Gorky, Mayakovsky, and Tolstoy.

Ultimately, this is a work about two things. It is concerned with getting old. And it is about being an author. People who care about living and writing will take something from the droll and unhurried thinking of Amor Towles. Nevertheless, mentioning masterpieces does not produce a masterpiece. Postmodern thought can lack the heft of seriousness to support a grand fictional narrative.

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