A Gentleman in Moscow


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numbers refer to iPad/Kindle edition.

1) The story starts with Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov on trial for a poem he’s accused of writing and when asked “And your occupation?” He answers, “It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.” (pg 3) Five statements later, he’s asked by Prosecutor Vyshinsky, “Are you the author of this long poem of 1923: ‘Where is it Now’?” Rostov: “It has been attributed to me.”
     First, how do we come to learn differently about what it takes to be a gentleman. and second, what “occupation” means as it relates to "work"?

2) The author states “Reversals was the fate loved best” (Pg 139). In Greek mythology, the three fates are: Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (unturnable). They controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal from birth to death. How does the “reversals of fate” apply to Rostov or any of the other main characters whose fates change for the better or worse, depending on how they were when first introduced. For example: Mikhail “Mishka” Fyodorovich Mindich, Nina Kulikova and daughter Sophia, Anna Urbanova, the Bishop, etc.

3) As Rostov’s world shrinks (to the point he considers suicide) while confined at The Metropol, Nina’s world grows. Discuss the contrasts between the two world’s and how they both change as a result of their friendship.

4) On Amor Towles website under “Q & A” at www.AmorTowles.com, he comments on the structure of the book with the first chapters doubling in time from “one day after the arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principal is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years until the Count’s escape, four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door.” He calls it an “accordion structure”. Where you aware of it, and if so, how did it help you follow the course of events? If you were not aware of it, but now that you are, how does this help, if at all, to improve your understanding?

5) Also in the Q & A and in the Publishers Discussion Questions (see #9), there’s some significance for Towles inclusion of Rick in “Casablanca” turning upright the toppled cocktail glass. (Pg 458) “But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions, one can restore some sense of order to the world?” How did Rostov, with this simple twist of the wrist, restore some sense of order to his world?

6) Speaking of “a twist of the wrist”, how does one unseemly or even intentionally spur a series of actions from one simple act? For instance, when you tell a lie or give encouragement by saying or doing something good or bad to or for someone?

7) Bread and salt are noted as an ancient Russian symbol of hospitality. (pg 287) It is also the title of MIshka’s book, delivered to Rostov by Katerina Litvinova, after his friend’s death. What do you think is the significance of this symbol, in particular bread, as it plays out in the story? What about the beekeeper with his black bread and honey?

8) Midway through the novel Mishka and Rostov have a discussion over the Russian peoples’ retaliation toward collectivism through the act of destroying things. (Pg 291), Mishka says, “I suddenly understood that this propensity for self-destruction was not an abomination, not something to be ashamed of or abhorred; it was our greatest strength. We turn the gun on ourselves not because we are more indifferent and less cultured than the British, or French, or the Italians. On the contrary. We are prepared to destroy that which we have created because we believe more than of any of them in the power of the picture, the poem, the prayer, or the person.” How does this same understanding pertain to Mishka, himself, as well as Rostov?

9) There are many great lines in this novel…one of note that might sway you to either read or recommend this novel to someone, is “What is an intention when compared to a plan?” he (Rostov, pg 423) said, catching Osip by the sleeve. “If the sooner the better, than why not next week?”

From the Publisher: Penguin Random House

1) In the transcript at the opening of A Gentleman in Moscow, the head of the tribunal and Count Rostov have the following exchange:
“Secretary Ignatov: I have no doubt, Count Rostov, that some in the galley are surprised to find you charming; but I am not surprised to find you so. History has shown charm to be the last ambition of the leisure class. What I do find surprising is that the author of the poem in question could have become a man so obviously without purpose.
Rostov: I have lived under the impression that a man’s purpose is known only to God.
Secretary Ignatov: Indeed. How convenient that must have been for you.”
To what extent is A Gentleman in Moscow a novel of purpose? How does the Count’s sense of purpose manifest itself initially, and how does it evolve as the story unfolds?

2) Over the course of Book Two, why does the Count decide to throw himself from the roof of the Metropol? On the verge of doing so, why does the encounter with the old handyman lead him to change his plans?

3) The Count’s life under house arrest is greatly influenced by his relationship with four women: Nina, Marina, Anna, and Sofia. What is the nature of the Count’s relationship with each of these women? How do those relationships differ from his relationship with the members of the Triumvirate—Andrey and Emile?

4) The majority of A Gentleman in Moscow is told in the third person from the Count’s point of view. There is, however, an overarching narrator with a perspective different from the Count’s. Initially, this narrator appears in footnotes, then in the “Addendums,” then in the historical introductions of “1930,” “1938,” and “1946.” How would you characterize this narrator? How does he differ from the Count in terms of his point of view and tone of voice? What is his role in the narrative?

5) In the “1946” chapter, Mishka, Osip, and Richard each share with the Count his perspective on the meaning of the revolutionary era. What are these three perspectives? Are you inclined to agree with one of them; or do you find there is some merit to each? (WMBC did not find this in 1946 chapter.)

6) One of the pleasures of writing fiction is discovering upon completion of a project that some thread of imagery has run through the work without your complete awareness—forming, in essence, an unintentional motif. While I was very conscious of the recurrence of tolling bells, keys, and concentric circles in the book, here are a few motifs that I only recognized after the fact: Packages wrapped in brown paper, such as the Maltese Falcon, Mishka’s book of quotations, the Russian nesting dolls discovered in the Italians’ closet, and the Count’s copy of Montaigne (in Paris). The likeness of stars, such as the freckles on Anna’s back and the beacon on the top of the Shukhov radio tower. Sailors (often in peril), such as Robinson Crusoe, Odysseus, Admiral Makarov, and Arion in the myth of Delphinus. What role do any of these motifs play in the thematic composition of the book? And if you see me in an airport, can you explain them to me?

7) How does the narrative incorporate the passage of time, and does it do so effectively? Thematically speaking, how does the Count’s experience of Time change over the course of the novel and how does it relate to his father’s views as embodied by the twice-tolling clock? What does the novel suggest about the influence of individuals on history and vice versa?

8) At the opening of Book Five, the Count has already decided to get Sofia out of Russia. What occurs over the course of Book Four to lead him to this decision? Why does he choose to remain behind?

9) Near the novel’s conclusion, what is the significance of the toppled cocktail glass in Casablanca?

10) This is a novel with a somewhat fantastical premise set half a century ago in a country very different from our own. Nonetheless, do you think the book is relevant today? If so, in what way?

11) Bonus Question: Who in the novel also appears in Rules of Civility?

WMBC Questions compiled by Elaine Gallant 08/4/2017