Tag Archives: Cold War

Interview with Amor Towles

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author picture of Amor TowlesAmor Towles was born and raised in the Boston area. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University. An investment professional for more than twenty years, he now devotes himself full time to writing. His first novel, Rules of Civility, was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. You can find him online at amortowles.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your newest novel, A Gentleman in Moscow?

Amor Towles: Over the two decades that I was in the investment business, I travelled a good deal for my firm. Every year, I would spend weeks at a time in the hotels of distant cities meeting with clients and prospects. In 2009, while arriving at my hotel in Geneva (for the eighth year in a row), I recognized some of the people lingering in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left. Upstairs in my room, I began playing with the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia—where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars. In the next few days, I sketched out most of the key events of A Gentleman in Moscow; over the next few years, I built a detailed outline; then in 2013, I retired from my day job and began writing the book.

A Gentleman in Moscow seems rich in historic details, particularly concerning the Metropol Hotel. What sort of research did you do for the book?

Rather than pursuing research driven projects, I like to write from areas of existing fascination. Even as a young man, I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the movies, and listening to the music of the era. I used this deep-seated familiarity as the foundation for inventing my version of 1938 New York in Rules of Civility. Similarly, I chose to write A Gentleman in Moscow because of my longstanding fascination with Russian literature, culture, and history. Most of the texture of the novel springs from the marriage of my imagination with that interest. For both novels, once I had finished the first draft, I did some applied research in order to fine tune details. In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, I gathered firsthand accounts of life in the Metropol from an array of prominent people including John Steinbeck, E. E. Cummings, and Lillian Hellman. You can survey these accounts at amortowles.com.

Having researched all of these firsthand accounts, are any of the characters in the novel based on real people?

None of the novel’s central characters are based on historical figures, or on people that I have known. That said, I have pick-pocketed my own life for loose change to include in the book such as these three examples:

The thimble game that the Count plays with Sofia was from my childhood. My great grandmother was a Boston Brahmin who lived until she was a hundred in a stately house. When my cousins and I visited her (in our little blue blazers), she would welcome us into her sitting room. After the appropriate amount of polite conversation, she would inform us that she had hidden several thimbles in the room and that whoever found one would receive a dollar—prompting a good deal of scurrying about.

When I was a boy of ten, I threw a bottle with a note into the Atlantic Ocean near summer’s end. When we got home a few weeks later there was a letter waiting for me on New York Times stationery. It turned out that my bottle had been found by Harrison Salisbury, a managing editor of the Times and the creator of its Op-Ed page. He and I ended up corresponding for many years, and I eventually met him on my first visit to New York when I was seventeen. It so happens that Salisbury was the Moscow bureau chief for the Times from 1949 to 1954. A few colorful details in A Gentleman in Moscow spring from his memoirs; he also makes a cameo late in the novel, and it is his fedora and trench coat that the Count steals to mask his escape.

Finally, the scene in which the tempestuous Anna Urbanova refuses to pick up her clothes, throws them out the window into the street, and then sheepishly sneaks out in the middle of the night to retrieve them, was a scene that played out between my parents shortly after their marriage. Although, it was my mother who wouldn’t pick up her clothes, and my father who threw them out the window. I’ll leave it to you to guess who went out in the middle of the night to pick them back up.

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

Initially, I imagined that the central challenge posed by the book was that I was trapping myself, my hero, and my readers in a single building for thirty-two years. But my experience of writing the novel ended up being similar to that of the Count’s experience of house arrest: the hotel kept opening up in front of me to reveal more and more aspects of life.

In the end, a much greater challenge sprang from the novel’s geometry. Essentially, A Gentleman in Moscow takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.

When effective, a book like this can provide a lot of unexpected satisfactions to the reader. The problem is that the plethora of elements in the first half can bog readers down making them so frustrated or bored that they abandon the book. So, my challenge was to craft the story, the point of view, and the language in such a way that readers enjoy the first half and feel compelled to continue despite their uncertainty of where things are headed. Whether or not I succeeded in doing so is up to you.

Can you comment a little more on that diamond structure of A Gentleman in Moscow?

From the day of the Count’s house arrest, the chapters advance by a doubling principal: one day after 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.

While odd, this accordion structure seems to suit the story well, as we get a very granular description of the early days of confinement; then we leap across time through eras defined by career, parenthood, and changes in the political landscape; and finally, we get a reversion to urgent granularity as we approach the denouement. As an aside, I think this is very true to life, in that we remember so many events of a single year in our early adulthood, but then suddenly remember an entire decade as a phase of our career or of our lives as parents.

That’s very true. Why did you decide to write A Gentleman in Moscow as your follow up to Rules of Civility?

When I was deciding what to do after Rules, I picked A Gentleman from among a handful of projects I had been considering. In retrospect, I see that my choice was probably influenced by an unconscious desire for change, because the two novels are a study in contrasts. Where the former takes place over a single year, the latter spans thirty-two. Where the former roves across a city, the latter takes place in one building. Where the former is from the perspective of a young working class woman on the rise, the latter is from the perspective of an aging aristocrat who has lost everything. And where the former is virtually free of children and parents, the latter is very much concerned with generational relationships.

So what are you working on now?

Last year, Viking/Penguin contracted with me to publish my next two novels; now I just have to write them. I like to carefully design my books, beginning the writing process only once I have an extensive outline. I am still in the process of outlining my next book, but I suspect it will follow three eighteen-year-old boys on their way from the Midwest to New York City in the early 1950s…

I’d like to finish up with a couple of quick questions on what you read. What book or author inspired you to write?

I began writing when I began reading in first grade. Since then, the two practices have proceeded in parallel. Read, Write, Repeat. That said, probably my three favorite novels are Moby Dick, War & Peace, and 100 Years of Solitude.

And what are you currently reading?

For the last thirteen years, three friends and I have met monthly to discuss a novel over dinner. We generally work on projects over many months. Right now, we are in the process of reading 8 Philip Roth novels focused on those involving his alter ego, Zuckerman.

book cover of A Gentleman in Moscow

Stalin’s Englishman: the lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie

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The story of the Cambridge Spy Ring, or the Magnifivent Five as they were dubbed by the media, continues to be of interest, long after the Cold War ended. How did this group of young, wealthy, Cambridge University students fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union during the 1930s? The reality is that Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, all brilliant young men, were very willing recruits because, in the polarised politics of the time, they saw it as a simple choice between Fascism or Communism, and they chose the latter.

Guy Burgess was the most important, complex and fascinating of the Cambridge Spies. An engaging and charming companion to many, an unappealing, utterly ruthless manipulator to others, Burgess rose through academia, the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6, gaining access to thousands of highly secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers. And he did all of this in plain sight while drawing attention to himself via a disolute and promiscuous lifestyle. There was no security vetting in those days. The only entry requirements were that you went to Eton and Oxbridge and came from a ‘good family’. It was all about the connections which tied the ruling class together.

Burgess lost his father at an early age and some have speculated that this may have influenced his later direction in life. He was devoted to his mother and was an outstanding Cambridge undergraduate. He joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society and came into contact with other rich young men who were attracted to Marxism and how it was being implemented in the Soviet Union. His comrades included John Cornford, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and James Klugmann, who went on to become a skilled organiser within the Communist Party of Britain.

This is Andrew Lownie’s first full biography and he draws a rich picture of Guy Burgess’s lives, both personal and political. He shows how Burgess’s chaotic personal life of drunken philandering did nothing to stop his penetration of the British Intelligence Service. Even when he was under suspicion, the fabled charm which enabled close personal relationships with numerous influential figures prevented his exposure as a spy for many years. But it was the exposure of Donald Maclean which led to Burgess’s exile in Russia. Maclean was tipped off by Kim Philby and had to be smuggled out of the country. Burgess was instructed to escort Maclean to Europe, where we would be taken care of by his Soviet handlers. Burgess did not realise that he had been given a one way ticket and that he would become a fellow defector with Maclean in Moscow.

Burgess and Maclean left England in 1951 and disappeared for the next five years. Their mystery was solved when Tom Driberg visited them in Moscow and published Guy Burgess: a portrait with background in 1956. Burgess was not happy in Moscow and missed his mother, friends and London life. When he died in 1963 his ashes were sent back to England and placed in the family plot besides those of his father. Guy Burgess had finally had his wish and returned home.

Through interviews with over a hundred people who knew Burgess personally, many of whom have never spoken about him before, and the discovery of hitherto secret files, Stalin’s Englishman brilliantly unravels the many lives of Guy Burgess in all their intriguing, chilling, colourful, tragic-comic reality.

Review by John Pateman -Chief Librarian/CEO Thunder Bay Public Library

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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gentlemanmoscow

In the follow-up to his debut novel, Rules of Civility, author Amor Towles has written another fascinating and lyrical historical novel that captures the essence of a not so distant past.  This novel follows the story of Count Alexander Rostov , one of the last remaining members of the aristocracy left in Russia following the Revolution.  Rostov, a man of wit, charm and education who has never worked a day in his life is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal as being an unrepentant aristocrat and sentenced to house arrest at the Hotel Metropol, which sits across the street from the Kremlin.  Instead of a large palace or a luxury suite, he is stripped of his possessions and forced to live in a small attic room for over 30 years.

Rostov is not crushed by the change in his circumstances,  and instead develops close relationships with the staff and the regular guests at the hotel.  Against the backdrop of world events, Rostov observes the world and engages the interest and the friendship of a precocious nine-year-old named Nina.  As the years pass, it is Rostov’s charm and friendships that keep him safe from the purges that plague the outside world, despite a close relationship with the American ambassador Richard Wilshire.

Both of his novels are a joy to read, and the author’s love of language and wordplay is evident, as is his ability to illustrate overwhelmingly complicated situations with the use of quiet observation.  Rostov would be what my mother called a “charmer”, with the innate ability to understand human nature and gently manipulate situations to his advantage.  While the novel covers decades of fictional time, I was saddened to close the final page and look foward to any further works by Towles.

hotelmetropolLobby of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, built in 1905.

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

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US conductorsI’m always a little suspicious of award winning books because their selection by committee often means that compromises have been made somewhere along the line. These were not evident when I read Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It is a classic work of faction, weaving together real people and events into a fictional narrative. The use of short simple sentences increases its impact. It is a fantastic, almost surreal, story with great heights and matching lows. It is centred around the life and loves of the famed Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen – creator of the Theremin, an instrument which can create music from radio waves.

The Soviets immediately see the application of this new technology in their espionage efforts and despatch Lev to America where he succumbs to the attractions of capitalism. He also falls for Clara Rockmore, his ‘one true love’. His time is split between meeting American industrial magnates  – creating the possibilities for stealing their secrets – and living it up in the Jazz Age clubs of New York. His Soviet handlers come and go and send him on one particular mission which has very tragic consequences. And then suddenly he is torn from this life of luxury and ease and taken back to Russia, accused of treason against Mother Russia. On the long journey home he writes a number of letters to Clara which tell his sad story. Back in the USSR he is sent to a number of increasingly harsh labour camps until he is spotted and rescued by Beria, the head of the NKVD. Beria demands that he invents listening devices which have no wires and which cannot be detected. These are tested on the American Ambassador but their ultimate use is against Stalin himself. The real Lev died in 1993, aged 97.

John Pateman is Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library.