I recently finished reading Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow for the book club I participate in. I have to say I found it to be one of the more enjoyable books I’ve read for the club so far. For a book about a man stuck in a hotel for most of his life, it was surprisingly entertaining. I probably would have gotten more out of it with a better understanding of Russian history, however Wikipedia links on my Kindle got me up to speed quickly enough to stay engaged.
Speaking of engaging, one of the things that bugs me about the literary fiction we’ve been reading for book club is that these books get away with things that would never fly today in a science fiction or fantasy novel. Case in point with A Gentleman: it starts with a transcript of the trial at which the main character is accused. Not just the trial. But with court transcripts. That would have been enough for me to drop it right there if I was reading it on my own. What editor looked at that and said – “Yes, that is how you should open your novel.” In fact I believe there is a specific warning against transcripts in Science Fiction 101 where Silverberg discusses using court transcripts one of his childhood attempt and how that mode was outdated even when he was growing up. So why did it fly here? It is one major flaw in what is otherwise a really well-built novel.
What did impress me about A Gentleman was how well the ending was constructed over the course of the novel. I’m going to discuss it below, but first a spoiler warning, since you can’t talk about a surprise ending without ruining it.
*** Massive Spoilers Below ***
The writer and playwright Anton Chekov said famously:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” (in Valentine T. Bill (1987), Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom, Philosophical Library via Wikipedia)
While Chekov was making a statement about writing short stories – that nothing should be included that is not significant to the plot – a Chekov’s Gun has come to mean a small item that turns out to be significant later in the plot. It is a type of foreshadowing, though if you really want to lose an hour or six I suggest following that link above to TV tropes and reading about all the related subtypes.
A Gentleman in Moscow contains a set of literal Chekov’s guns: the case of dueling pistols kept in the secret compartment in the manager’s office. However, I would argue that many if not most of the objects, places and relationships in the novel are established to provide something needed for the escape. So let’s look at how that happens and then talk about how this type of story is built.
***Spoilers. Seriously now. ***
A Gentleman in Moscow follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov who is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, following the overthrow of the Tsar. Luckily for holding our interest, the Metropol is a huge hotel and, being situated across from the Kremlin, the Metropol is full of variously important and interesting people from the guests to the staff. The Count’s now restricted life is greatly impacted by certain guests and staff, from the head chef, to the scheming “Bishop”, to the daughter of a guest who mysteriously holds the – literal – key to the Hotel.
The escape from the hotel involves two parts. The first is The Count’s adopted daughter Sophia’s. She has perhaps the easier part, escaping in Paris. To do this she performs her piano solo, ducks back into her dressing room, cuts her hair with sewing scissors, dyes the white streak in her hair, dresses in boy’s clothing, slips out the back and follows a map through the streets to the American Embassy.
The Count’s own escape is complicated by the fact that he’s caught by the Bishop – who over the course of the book has schemed his way from waiter to manager of the hotel – and whom he is forced to hold at gunpoint and lock in the cellar. He also manages to obtain a passport, an overcoat, money, a ticket out-of-town, and the assurance of safety in the West, all without leaving the hotel.
Each of the items used in the escape is mentioned several times during the rambling course of the narrative. The guns, for instance, are mentioned in the beginning in reference to a tale of a famous duel at the hotel, in a later chapter the Count is given the brief opportunity to confirm they exist and their hiding place, decades later the hiding place is mentioned again. So when the time comes for the Count to use the gun, the reader has been well prepared for their presence.
This happens with people too. A weekly trip to the barber mentions a cabinet full of barber’s tools – including a tiny pot of black hair dye – and also results in meeting the little girl with the key. A habit of drinking in the hotel bar leads to encountering American newspapermen and diplomats, who in providing amusing tales about the ex-pat community in the hotel, later provide both overcoats of a type not worn in Moscow and a connection to the American embassy.
So, how does Towles get things to line up so neatly from the beginning? Either he has an epic memory or, more likely, a lot of the book was written backwards. By writing from the ending – either from the beginning or in revisions – the author can be sure to insert all of these little nods before they are needed. This works especially well when these tidbits get inserted into scenes where other important things are already happening. This also allows you to fulfill Chekov’s actual rule – if it’s not essential, don’t include it in the story – while still hiding your guns in plain sight.