Now that I have more time on my hands, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I recently finished ‘A Gentleman In Moscow’ by Amor Towles. I usually read books straight through from the first time I open them up until the last page, typically finishing them within a week as I get engrossed in the story and can’t wait to see what’s going to happen to the characters. But this one took me at least 9 months.
I started it last summer but just couldn’t finish it. Not because I didn’t like it. I loved it all; the characters, the writing style, the era, and the post revolutionary Russian perspective; but it just isn’t a fast read. It’s a book to savor and focus on and because I was so busy last year I couldn’t find blocks of time long enough to fully devote to it as I found myself wanting to re-read passages over and over to absorb Towles elegant writing.
So, I started it, read about 100 pages, put it down for a while, came back to it, read another hundred pages, put it down for months, came back, read some more, put it down, and on and on until this holiday season when I picked it back up again and finally dove in and committed to finishing it.
Now I have that mournful, wistful feeling I always get when I finish a good book, as I wish I could spend more time with these marvelous characters and their delightful life in the entrancing Moscow Metropol hotel
I’ve always had a penchant for Russian literature ever since I was a young girl. In my childhood home, there was a long bookshelf in the hallway of our home where my parents stored all of their books. Many were from their own college years and I guess my father must have had a Russian literature course because there was a shelf populated with several of the great Russian authors, like Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Pasternak. As a young girl, I was a voracious reader and would read anything and everything; good writing, bad writing, pulp fiction, or the classics, I inhaled it all. I was a quick reader, so the longer the book, the better, and those Russian tomes on my parents book shelf certainly were long.
My mother was rather suspicious of all this reading. She didn’t really believe I was reading all this heady classic literature, at my age. In particular, I remember how she grilled me about ‘War and Peace.’ I had begun reading it when I was about eleven years old and she just didn’t believe me when she saw me curled up on the couch, absorbed in the pages. I’m not sure what she thought as I sat there with my nose stuck in that book for weeks; it was terrifically long and a slog of a read for an eleven year old, but she would look at me sideways, implying with her skeptical glare that I couldn’t possibly be reading or understanding an icon like ‘War and Peace.’ Truthfully, while I didn’t understand all of it, most of it made sense and was completely engrossing, and besides I was mostly reading it for the sex parts anyway.
Of course I didn’t tell that last bit to my mother, but I was fascinated with reading books that had references to sex in them, as I had no idea how basic human sexuality worked and was desperately trying to figure it out by reading any book I could get my hands on that mentioned it. Those Russian novels sure had a lot of sexy scenes and I would race through the war sections of ‘War and Peace,’ to get to the romantic sections where clearly those characters were all engaging in lots of bedroom action. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for eleven year old me, the great classics never revealed any of the actual details of sexual activity, it was all referenced in a rather vague way so I was even more confused than ever, but still intrigued. Kind of funny to think I was trying to get sex ed information from reading great classic literature, but in those days, the schools certainly didn’t teach us sex ed and my mother for sure was not going to broach the subject with me, so that was where I went searching for my information.
Every year in grammar school, our English teacher would send us home with our annual Summer Reading list with all the books that we were supposed to read over the summer. Most kids dreaded it and I have a feeling most of them didn’t read any of the books on the list, as there really was no consequence if you didn’t; no test to see what you’d read when we returned in the Fall.
Me on the other hand. Each year I waited for that list to be issued with bated breath and was never more excited than the day I had it in my hot little hands so that I could race to the library the next day and start to check out those books on the list, before all the other students got to them. Of course, none of the other kids were in the least bit interested, but I was actually deluded enough to think that I needed to get to the library early so that I had first dibs on them. There were usually about thirty books per list and the recommendation was to read at least fifteen. I always read all thirty and even read more if there were extras. This was how I first plowed through all of the great classics. Every book on those annual lists was worthwhile and taught me life lessons and a love of literature that still lives in me all these years later.
Fast forward to when I had kids of my own. Imagine my excitement when my daughter brought home her first summer reading list. When I found it in her backpack I excitedly began planning our trip to the library to pick up the books she wanted to read, only to be met with her uncomprehending stare as she looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. She was completely uninterested and thought I was nuts to even suggest that she was actually going to read any of the books on the list. It’s times like these, that as a mother, I began to realize what a strange childhood I had, completely obsessed with reading and never participating in sports of any kind. My kids were way more interested in sports than in literature, although as they’ve grown up, they have thankfully become avid readers, which fills my heart with pure joy.
‘A Gentleman In Moscow’ brought me back to those days when I was first becoming exposed to all the great literature of the world, and gave me a feeling of deep contentment. It’s rare to find such an elegant book, in our contemporary world. If you have a chance, I wholeheartedly recommend it. I believe it will live on as one of the great works of literature of our generation.