A Gentleman isn´t about action, it´s about human relationships, human response to dire circumstances. In this case the (lack of) action of count Alexander Ilyich Rostov.
This count returns to Moscow during the Russian Revolution. He forsakes the safety of Paris in order to save his grandmother from the communists. Why he does not leave the country with her remains a question for the reader for a long time. He allows himself to be grounded for life in the hotel he has taken lodging in. Only well into the novel the personal reasons for doing so are revealed.
The count is grounded for life for state-subversive activities. In the luxurious hotel he has to remain in for the rest of his life he observes as the revolution proceeds. From his position he sees opposition tackled or ambitious party members succeed. He recognizes how to use his own talents and becomes host of the famous hotel restaurant. He sees good friends going down in the harsh regime of communism, he finds new lifelong friends at the hotel itself. One of those friendships will determine his life in an unexpected way.
Whilst reading I kept asking myself ‘why does he not try and escape?’. One incident after twenty years of being kept a prisoner makes clear that he is still being watched, still considered an enemy (though on very friendly terms with his most important guard).
Some people might find A Gentleman lacking in historical fact. I found the amount of historical fact just to my taste. Towles provides his reader with sufficient input about context and history, fact never takes over. Context mainly serves as the background for the count’s life. He is an extremely charming and pleasant person capable of having friendships in dire times. Though more negative aspects about him are revealed they do not diminish him, they make him lifelike.
A Gentleman is like its main character: charming and pleasant with darker layers lurking underneath the veneer. The subtilty of the count is reflected in the subtlety of the novel. Towles shows that someone can remain true to himself and his ideals despite lifelong imprisonment. And can be surprised by his own reactions and behaviour from time to time. The count who has always seen himself as flexible and adaptable finds himself liking routines. A charming fact in a charming novel. I loved it.