My powers of observation are not so keen that I’m going to brave the very crowded depths of reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. (Want to read my reviews, I’ve got a whole category, above.)
Let’s just agree that Amor Towles’s second novel is a modern masterpiece, shall we? If you are one of the four people on the planet who haven’t read or at least heard about this story of Count Alexander Rostov, here’s a brief intro (from the jacket copy):
When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin…the [erudite and witty] Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships…
Basically, drama, relationships, and meaningful meditations ensue. Just read this novel about the Russian soul–its art, history, toil, treasures, and catastrophes. (And be sure to watch the best novel trailer I’ve ever seen at Towles’s website, above.)
Just as this former kid ballet dancer (me) can’t watch a ballet without my feet twitching, my calves contracting, my back straightening, and my head lilting this way and that with those on stage, I can’t read a book without wondering how?
But here’s not the place for a deep-dive into craft. I simply want to note a few miracles of invention in A Gentleman… and provide a word of caution to the dutifully outlining and character backstory-charting new(er) writers out there.
An image of note: the Count’s twice-tolling clock is much more than a clock that tells time by tolling only at noon and at midnight. It provides a mechanism to discuss industriousness, for Towles to tell us of the Count’s father, who had the clock made because a man (of a certain class, time, and place) should be too busy with work to heed the chimes between waking and noon. And by noon, having had an industrious morning, a man should then leave his work to commune with others. Should he hear the midnight chime, he is too late to bed. And the replete uses for this image are only beginning…
Description of note: readers come to a book like this expecting description befitting its learned main character. Towles delivers, but fear not, he doesn’t (like in real Russian novels) let his pacing lag in many-paged sections of description. No, his descriptions are just as clippy and cutting as his dialogue.
Take the goose chase section (trust me), a funny and farcical bit that brings together in a hotel hallway a melange of worldly guests: two French journalists, a Swiss diplomat, three Uzbek fur traders, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, a Russian opera tenor with his family of five, and an American general. (All that’s missing is a partridge you know where, but then we do have geese!) Each becomes a character–and a caricature in the Count’s eyes–in the briefest of scenes, thanks to Towles’s powers of description. The ambassador from the Vatican advised; the Swiss diplomat heard the Russian and the Italian out, mouth shut; the tenor, “who spoke only a few words of Italian, informed the prelate (fortissimo) that he was not a man to be toyed with.” The American general, from “The Great State of Texas” took charge and threw the geese out the window.
A sleight of hand (and humor) of note: recently I read a wonderfully-informative and instructive piece on Brevity‘s nonfiction blog, “The Sound of a Memoir,” about shying away from using song lyrics in our writing (whether fiction or nonfiction). Practically-speaking, citing song lyrics (titles are OK) can be an expensive endeavor–if a writer manages to get permission to use them. Creatively-speaking, there are better ways to note a song in a story–to provide a bit of soundtrack to a piece, to get the reader’s foot tapping and put him or her in mind of a certain time when that song said so much! (If you now, as I do, have Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” in your head, you’re welcome.)
Back to Towles’s mastery: In A Gentleman… the author artfully explores the passing of time and trends, in one part commenting on jazz music. In not one but a few places the author has the Count muse about the popular jazz tune that speaks of a distinct absence of bananas, a lack of bananas, for want of bananas… You get the idea. Anyone who hasn’t lived his entire life in a cave knows the song is Louis Prima’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” (hear the song here) but by not citing even the title, the reference becomes more than a song but a clever running joke.
All that’s to gush, yes, and also to provide a word of caution to the new(er) writers out there looking for the keys–not only to plot but to imagery and motifs, the characterization and quirks–that make a piece of writing beautiful. How to make these little miracles happen on the page? If I knew, I would be doing it, right now. But I think one of the keys to being a great writer is being a great reader. Another is to trust your mind to make the miracles as you go. Call it a state of flow or the (ahem) muse catching you by the hand, whatever, but writing is more about writing than planning. (OK, you caught me; I’m a panster.)
Yes, you can plan for plot. Outline all you like. Get a sense of your characters before diving in. But can you plan for the clever bits, the brilliant tropes and descriptors and “bananas” that make a piece sing, I’m not so sure.
What do you think? What miracles of invention have you encountered thus far in your summer reads? I’d love to hear from you!
*I grabbed the American and UK cover (which I prefer) images from Goodreads.