A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)
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"A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel's doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery..."--… (more)
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How well I remember
When it came as a visitor on foot
And dwelt a while amongst us
A melody in the semblance of a mountain cat.
Well, where is our purpose now?
Like so many questions
I answer this one
With the eye-averted peeling of a pear.
With a bow I bid goodnight
And pass through terrace doors
Into the simple splendors
Of another temperate spring;
But this much I know;
It is not lost among the autumn leaves on Peter's Square.
It is not among the ashes in the Athenaeum ash cans.
It is not inside the blue pagodas of your fine Chinoiserie.
It is not in Vronsky's saddlebags;
Not in Sonnet XXX, stanza one;
Not on twenty-seven red...
Where Is It Now? (Lines 1-19)
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov 1913
For Stokley and Esme
At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.
Mindful of their surroundings, the three damsels would initially speak in the hushed voices of gentility; but swept away by the currents of their own emotions, their voices would inevitably rise, such that by 11:15, even the most discreet enjoyer of a pastry would have no choice but to eavesdrop on the thousand-layered complications of their hearts.
The crowded confusion of furniture gave the Count's little domain the look of a consignment shop in the Arbat.
Yes, some claimed Emile Zhukovsky was a curmudgeon and others called him abrupt. Some said he was a short man with a shorter temper.
It was a place where Russians cut from every cloth could come to linger over coffee, happen upon friends, stumble into arguments, or drift into dalliances—and where the lone diner seated under the great glass ceiling could indulge himself in admiration, indignation, suspicion, and laughter without getting up from his chair.
Tall and thin, with a narrow head and superior demeanor, he looked rather like a bishop that had been plucked from a chessboard.
He found he was walking through the door of the Piazza at 12:01 for lunch. And at 1:35, when climbed the 110 steps to his room, he was already calculating the minutes until he could come back downstairs for a drink. If he continued along this course, it would not take long for the ceiling to edge downward, the walls to edge inward, and the floor to edge upward, until the entire hotel had been collapsed into the size of a biscuit tin.
For standing at the edge of his table was the young girl with the penchant for yellow—studying him with the unapologetic interest peculiar to children and dogs.
"Where did they go?" she asked, without a word of introduction. ¶ "I beg your pardon. Where did who go?" ¶ She tilted her head to take a closer look at his face. ¶ "Why, your moustaches."
So while dueling may have begun as a response to high crimes—to treachery, treason, and adultery—by 1900 it had tiptoed down the stairs of reason, until they were being fought over the tilt of a hat, the duration of a glance, or the placement of a comma.
That is, the most reprehensible affront should be resolved by a duel of the fewest paces, to ensure that one of the two men will not leave the field of honor alive. Well, if that was the case, concluded the Count, then in the new era, the duels should have been fought at no less than ten thousand paces. In fact, having thrown down the gauntlet, appointed seconds, and chosen weapons, the offender should board a steamer bound for America as the offended boards another for Japan where, upon arrival, the two men could don their finest coats, descend their gangplanks, turn on the docks, and fire.
"If only I were there and she were here," she sighed. ¶ And there, thought the Count, was a suitable plaint for all mankind.
But on the very first stroke of this hammer what the Count squarely hit was the back of his thumb. (Lest you have forgotten, it is quite excruciating to hammer the back of your thumb. It inevitably prompts a hopping up and down and the taking of the Lord's name in vain.)
His work completed, the Count sat down in one of the high-backed chairs and felt an almost surprising sense of bliss. The Count's bedroom and this improvised study had identical dimensions, and yet, they exerted a completely different influence on his mood. To some degree, this difference stemmed from the manner in which the two rooms had been furnished. For while the room next door—with its bed, bureau, and desk—remained a realm of practical necessities, the study—with its books, the Ambassador, and Helena's portrait—had been furnished in a manner more essential to the spirit. But in all likelihood, a greater factor in the difference between the two rooms was their provenance. For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then a room that exists in secret can, regardless of its dimensions, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.
Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence—one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.
"With all due respect to poetic concision, the male of the species was endowed with a pair when a single might have sufficed."
As the Count would later observe, it was fortuitous that they ended up above a cobbler—for no one in all of Russia could wear out a shoe like Mikhail Mindich. He could easily pace twenty miles in a twenty-foot room. He could pace thirty miles in an opera box and fifty in a confessional. For simply put, pacing was Mikhail's natural state.
Their laughter would echo under the stars and their steps would weave in wide curves back and forth across the straight tracks that they had made upon their arrival—such that in the morning their hosts would find the giant figure of a G clef transcribed by their boots in the snow.
But as they came to the bend in the road where the Count would normally give a snap of the reins to speed the horses home, Helena would place a hand on his arm to signal that he should slow the team—for midnight had just arrived, and a mile behind them the bells of Ascension had begun to swing, their chimes cascading over the frozen land in holy canticle. And in the pause between hymns, if one listened with care, above the pant of the horses, above the whistle of wind, one could hear the bells of St. Michael's ten miles away—and then the bells of St. Sofia's even farther afield—calling one to another like flocks of geese across a pond of dusk.
Systematic in all matters of importance, Nina ate her ice cream one flavor at a time, moving from the lightest to the darkest in shade. Thus, having already dispatched her French vanilla, she was now moving on to a scoop of lemon, which perfectly matched her dress.
"Yes, it will be nice to see everyone," said Nina. "But when we return to Moscow in January, I shall be starting school." ¶ "You don't seem very excited by the prospect." ¶ "I fear it will be dreadfully dull," she admitted, "and positively overrun with children."
"The only difference between everybody and nobody is all the shoes."
The Count's assertion had seemed so axiomatic that he had not prepared an elaboration.
By some extraordinary conspiracy of fate, at the very instant Nina mad this pronouncement, the accordion player concluded an old favorite and the sparsely populated room broke into applause. Nina gestured to her fellow customers with both hands as if their ovation were the final proof of her position.
From there, the evening could only get worse, and he would end up dragging his hopes behind him in the manner of the chastened child who drags his stuffed bear thumping up the stairs.
For after all, if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years.
The advantages of having such a power can be rattled off to you by any child of ten. Whether slipping past dragons, eavesdropping on intriguers, and sneaking into treasuries, and lighting the schoolmaster's coattails on fire, suffice it to say that a thousand tales have been told in acknowledgement of invisibility's bounty.
Nine looked up at the Count with her glint-extinguishing stare. ¶ The Count cleared his throat and adopted a more serious tone.
Though the Count had only seen him once or twice before, the Count could tell he was the Commissar of Something-or-Other, for he walked with urgency, talked with urgency, and even came to a stop with urgency.
In the scramble that ensued, it took three waiters to separate the various hands from the various lapels, and two busboys to sweep the chicken Marechal from the floor.
But as the Countess Rostov liked to remark: If patience wasn't so easily tested, then it would hardly be a virtue....
Just like that, the city of Moscow could boast new street names, new lobbies, and new statues—and neither the tourists, the theatergoers, nor the pigeons seemed particularly put out.
As long as there have been men on earth, reflected the Count, there have been men in exile. From primitive tribes to the most advanced societies, someone has occasionally been told by his fellow men to pack his bags, cross the border, and never set foot on his native soil again. But perhaps this was to be expected. After all, exile was the punishment that God meted out to Adam in the very first chapter of the human comedy; and that He meted out to Cain a few pages later. Yes, exile was as old as mankind. But the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home.
Before him sprawled the city, glorious and grandiose. Its legion of lights shimmered and reeled until they mixed with the movement of the stars. In one dizzy sphere they spun, confusing the works of man with the works of heaven.
The Count and the handyman both looked toward the roof's edge where the bees, having traveled over a hundred miles and applied themselves in willing industry, now wheeled above their hives as pinpoints of blackness, like the inverse of stars.
Ah, comrade, thought the Count. Now, there was a word for the ages.... ¶ When the Count was a boy in St. Petersburg, one rarely bumped into it. It was always prowling at the back of a mill or under the table in a tavern, occasionally leaving its paw marks on the freshly printed pamphlets that were drying on a basement floor.
Civil servant and customer proceeded to their appropriate stations on either side of that small window which separates the written from the read.
Mishka would pine for Katerina the rest of his life! Never again would he walk Nevsky Prospekt, however they chose to rename it, without feeling an unbearable sense of loss. And that is just how it should be. That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love.
Nina Kulikova always was and would be a serious soul in search of serious ideas to be serious about.
"I think I thought it would appeal to you." ¶ "You think you thought?" ¶ "Exactly."
"Life will follow her in a taxi. It will bump into her by chance. It will work its way into her affections. And to do so, it will beg, barter, collude, and if necessary, resort to chicanery."
So, not unlike that fellow in Genesis who said Let there be this, or Let there be that, and there was this or that, when Soso said Life has improved, comrades, life—in fact—improved!
"No doubt," said the concierge, in the manner of a librarian agreeing with a scholar.
Nina gripped the Count on the arm again; then she walked across the lobby at the pace of one who hopes to leave herself no room for second thoughts.
Leading Sofia down the hall and into the belfry, the Count gestured again for her to proceed. But having looked up the narrow twisting stair, Sofia turned to the Count and raised both hands in the international symbol of Pick me up.
"Oh," said Sofia, bringing the topic to a close with the efficiency of the guillotine.
"The age of nobility has given way to the age of the common man," she said with the pride of one who has recited her times tables correctly. "It was historically inevitable." ¶ "Yes," said the Count. "So I've been told."
"She is no more than thirty pounds; no more than three feet tall; her entire bag of belongings could fit in a single drawer; she rarely speaks unless spoken to; and her heart beats no louder than a bird's. So how is it possible that she takes up so much space?"
At his favorite restaurants, he had never ordered the same dish twice in a season. Rather, he traveled across their menus like Mr. Livingstone traveled across Africa and Magellan the seven seas.
"If you are ever in doubt, just remember that unlike adults, children want to be happy. So they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest things."
Mystified, the Count stepped aside and turned—just in time to see the long-strided watchman of the minutes catch up with his bowlegged brother of the hours.
But, alas, sleep did not come so easily to our weary friend. ¶ Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count's would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore.
And in March 1939, he was on a train bound for Siberia and the realm of second thoughts.
One of the advantages of working together for many years is that the daily rigmarole can be dispensed with quickly, leaving ample time for discussions of weightier concerns—such as rheumatism, the inadequacy of public transit, and the petty behavior of the inexplicably promoted.
"Who would have imagined," he said, "when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia."
Raised in grand homes in cosmopolitan cities, educated in the liberal arts, graced with idle hours, and exposed to the finest things, though the Count and the American had been born ten years and four thousand miles apart, they had more in common with each other than with the majority of their own countrymen.
"One must make ends meet," confirmed Audrius matter-of-factly, "or meet one's end."
Alexander Rostov was neither scientist nor sage; but at the age of sixty-four he was wise enough to know that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate, and our opinions evolve—if not glacially, then at least gradually. Such that the events of an average day are as likely to transform who we are as a pinch of pepper is to transform a stew.
And that is when the Count discovered, to his utter disbelief, that there was no back to the dress. The taffeta (which had been purchased by the bolt, mind you) fell away from her shoulders in a vertiginous parabola that reached its nadir at the base of Sofia's spine.
He had suddenly last his sense of superiority, as if all along it had been secured by his possession of these keys.
At which point, the Count closed the door and locked the Bishop into that room where pomp bides its time. ¶ They should get along just famously, thought the Count.
If one has been absent for decades from a place that one once held dear, the wise would generally counsel that one should never return there again.
Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.
“The list of prime numbers begins with two, three, and five, as you say. But prime numbers grow increasingly rare the larger they become. So it is one thing to land upon a seven or eleven. But to land upon a one thousand and nine is another thing altogether. Can you imagine identifying a prime number in the hundreds of thousands . . . ? In the millions . . . ?” Nina looked off in the distance, as if she could see that largest and most impregnable of all the numbers situated on its rocky promontory where for thousands of years it had withstood the onslaughts of fire-breathing dragons and barbarian hordes. Then she resumed her work.
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