The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
“The Oven Bird”
Alexander Ilyich Rostov had been a careless young man in his youth. His family had been rich and he had been spoiled but for all that, he was not a snob, did not feel the weight of his position, but lived casually, in love with life and food and parties but also with literature and art and architecture. He had somewhat unintentionally killed another young man who had done wrong by his sister and had fled Russia and was happily touring Europe when civil war broke out. After the Bolshevik Revolution he went back to Russia – something no sane member of his class would do – to make sure he could keep his Grandmother safe.
When A Gentleman in Moscow opens, Count Rostov has just emerged from his trial in a Bolshevik court and has not been sentenced to die, but instead, to his great surprise, has been sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, for the rest of his life. The Metropol was the most luxurious hotel in Russia, and he had been staying there before his trial and was a great admirer of the chef of the better of the two restaurants. He knew all the staff people and was on good terms with everyone. So after his trial he returned to his suite and prepared to dine in the Boyarsky.
But slowly and almost methodically he began to lose the privileges – mostly of class – in the hotel. He was moved to a very much smaller room in the back corner of the highest floor. This room was nowhere near big enough to accommodate the lovely old antique furniture he had rescued from his grandmother’s house. He was told the staff must no longer use honorifics in addressing him. In his second week back a very rude man broke up his scheduled barber appointment by arguing that he had been there first and must be attended to. He had in fact grabbed the barber shearers and cut off Rostov’s handle-bar moustache!
These diminishments were nothing to Count Rostov for he had a wonderful, flexible mind which could engage in whatever was before him, whatever was going on in the hotel, whomever entered it. The day his moustache was “trimmed”, a nine year old girl, daughter of a Bolshevik officer who also lived in the hotel, welcomed herself to his lunch table, and asked him what had happened to it. They became fast friends, and Nina was an amazing child. She took him on tours of all the back corners of the hotel, the storage room where they kept objects left behind by guests, a secret passageway into an area above the ball room from which you could spy on Bolshesvik meetings, if you didn’t mind splitting the seat of your pants climbing around like a child yourself. The split pants led him to befriend the hotel seamstress, who also became a good friend.
From his wanderings with Nina the Count figured out he could probably find his way into the closed off room in back of his own, and he did knock through the back of his closet and gain entrance. This room he fixed up as an antique sitting room with some of the furniture of his grandmother, and here he read his morning paper and drank his evening brandy.
When Nina brought him into one of the guest rooms which, she said, had the best view of the Bolshoi Theater across the street, he found out her secret: she had a hotel passkey! Later, when she and her father leave the hotel, not to return, she gives him a huge, elaborate gift, a nest of boxes, and in the smallest, he finds that passkey!
He engages as well with a variety of characters who eat in the Boyarsky, including diplomats and military personnel from other countries. At one point a Russian official tells the Count that to normalize foreign relations, Russia must have people equipped with the language and culture of other countries. Thus he asks the Count to meet him once a week for dinner, to speak in French, and later in English, and discuss these foreign cultures. This goes on for years until eventually they are discussing American movies!
He also forms a close relationship with an old handyman from the hotel staff, who lives in a self-constructed shack on the roof, with a brilliant view of all of Moscow, and raises bees whose honey tastes like the apple orchards of Count Rostov’s childhood home.
Eventually Count Rostov is further ‘demoted’, asked to work as head waiter in the Boyarsky – and here he forms a very tight trilogy with the cook and the restaurant manager. The three meet together every day to plan menus, sample menus, etc. At one juncture the three spend weeks putting together the fifteen rare and hard to get ingredients of the perfect bouillabaisse.
Count Rostov’s mind is so lively, and his life so rich, that it is easy to forget how circumscribed and diminished it is. He cannot leave the hotel. He is classified as a Former Person. He sometimes thinks longingly of old friends, his old life, the ballet, ever just across the street from his hotel, Russian literary figures. One old friend, a writer, visits him now and again, but he runs up against the government too and is punished by the Minus Six status. This means he can go wherever he wants, except he cannot enter the six biggest, most important Russian cities. This of course includes Moscow, so yet another link with the past is broken.
We all end up diminished, Robert Frost reminds us. We leave our jobs, sometimes lose friends and family members, lose status in our communities, and eventually lose health and energy.
And then what? What can we make of diminishment?
Count Rostov gives us some answers.