"To while away a civilized hour," is all Count Alexander Rostov wished to do when sitting down in the lobby of the Metropol Hotel with a snifter of brandy and the evening paper. And all I, myself, wished to do the minute I read that line in Amor Towles book "A Gentleman in Moscow."
The thing is, that is precisely what I was doing. A gift that comes with reading is a gift of whiling away a civilized hour. I just never heard it put that way.
I never heard many things put the way Amor Towles puts them, which is what I was told to expect by a couple of friends who insisted I read this best seller. "Beautifully written," is what they said. If anything, they understated the case. This may be the most beautifully written book I've ever encountered.
As such, I found myself frequently stopping my reading to type something into the notes folder on my phone. Lines I did not want to forget. Lines I wanted to share with people I love. Lines which one day could be woven into a column.
"To while away a civilized hour" was the first. I wanted to impress this notion on my two children and at the same time take it to heart myself. I never want them nor me to be so busy with "important" stuff that there's no time to read a bit of a good book, or even to just sit and do nothing, whiling away the time, alone with our thoughts and content to be so.
The book is about a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who at the time of the revolution in 1922 is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel located almost in the shadow of the Kremlin. It is not exactly hard time, but for the next 30 years this sophisticated gentlemen is incarcerated in the hotel, not allowed even a single step outside. How he makes the most of it is what makes this story not only memorable but in some ways life-changing. The Count's interactions with the workers and fellow guests of the hotel, especially with a little girl entrusted to his care, is what compelled me to continually stop reading and jot his words down.
"She is no more than thirty pounds," he says of the child, "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?!"
How do I read such things and not put the book aside for a moment and lose myself in a reverie of my own daughter of more than 30 years ago, when she, too was all of 30 pounds and 3 feet tall?
When this little girl grows to become a musical prodigy and is invited to play in Paris, the Count, who will never be allowed to leave the hotel, tells her, "I assure you, my dear, were you to play the piano on the moon, I would hear every chord."
What father would not feel the same?
Her "father," in essence, is what the Count becomes. Fully accepting the role, he observes, "In the end, a parent's responsibility could not be more simple: to bring a child safely into adulthood so that she could have a chance to experience a life of purpose and, God willing, contentment."
The Count is the epitome of manners and grace, but lest one think him stuffy, I'll share this from the author: "The Count took pride in wearing a well-tailored jacket; but he took greater pride in knowing that a gentleman's presence was best announced by his bearing, his remarks, and his manners. Not by the cut of his coat."
These words came to mind last Sunday morning at Mass as I watched and listened to Paul Gerosky, himself a perfect gentleman, deliver the first scripture reading, and thought of his late dad, Frank Gerosky, in whose memory, it turned out, the service was offered. One gentleman begot another.
In a world of loud mufflers, name-calling, F-words and barbed wire tattoos wrapped around bulging biceps, it is easy to assume a gentleman is a thing of the past. But the Count of Amor Towles' writing assures us the gentleman will never go out of style, and when all is said and done, is truly the most powerful of all men. Count Rostov is indomitable. He takes everything life has to throw at him, and never stoops to the level of his adversaries. On the contrary, by remaining above the fray, he repeatedly emerges the victor. All without ever raising his voice.
The Count never loses his sense of humor, his sense of right and wrong, his sense of optimism and his joy at merely being alive.
"In a state of self-pity," he cautions, "one may retreat from the world in which one has been blessed to live." He does not add, "So don't do that." But does he really have to?
It's reminiscent of the immortal words of basketball coach Jimmy V in the last stages of his battle with cancer: "Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
I've collected many more gems from this book, but I will not deprive you of discovering them for yourself, which I heartily recommend.
I will, however, leave you with one more, a quote the Count borrows from French essayist Michel de Montaigne.
"The surest sign of wisdom," de Montaigne says, ‘is constant cheerfulness."
I wrote this into a young lady's high school graduation card recently and added: "Show the world how wise you are by always being cheerful."
I hope she does. It sure worked for the Count.