After the US Presidential Election, I was a tad despondent. Picking up A Gentleman in Moscow was part of my personal self-care, along with listening to classical music and watching Pride and Prejudice. Why? Elegance makes me feel better. Civilization is still there, it’s just being overshadowed by something else right now.
But also because A Gentleman in Moscow takes place right after the Russian Revolution. The communists have just come into power, and the gentleman in question, Count Alexander Rostov, has been placed under house arrest in an the premier hotel in Moscow. The exploration of how to be civilized and stand for what you believe in during a regime that basically wants to forget you exist and repudiates what you stand for is a thread through the book that was helpful.
Which isn’t the overall point of the novel – it’s more about how to master your circumstances, rather than your circumstances mastering you. How do you stay sane when you’re not allowed to leave the hotel in which you live, having been relegated to a garret apartment? But because his exile is in the Metropol Hotel (again, the best in Moscow), he gets to meet a wide swath of people, including foreign journalists and ambassadors, not to mention see a number of the party congresses that need a place to meet.
It’s just as elegant and in favor of civilization as Rules of Civility was. Both books are highly recommended.
What’s it about?
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about its three main characters: Renee, the concierge of an apartment building in Paris; Paloma, the super-smart 12-year-old who is already tired of life; and Ozu, the new Japanese tenant. Renee is also an autodidact who hides her intelligence, afraid that everyone else will discover her; Paloma is frustrated by her family; and Ozu is the magical person who brings out the best in both of them.
Why should you read it?
I should state up front that the Elegance of the Hedgehog is French. It takes place in Paris, it is largely about death and philosophy, and has a very particular voice. It was for me, but it is not for everyone.
I found it to be a beautiful character sketch with all kinds of philosophical asides about art and death. (Did I mention it has a very French outlook?) Do I agree with its ideas about Death and Beauty and Art? I do agree that we are, in the end, all worm food, and I also agree with the idea that there are people who are more authentically elegant than others. The author seems in particular to damn people who want cultural power without appreciating the culture. Like the people who raise money for causes because it means they get to dress up and go to the party where they are seen and see others; not because they care for the cause. She holds a lot of contempt for those folks. They still do good things, of course, but for suspicious motives.
I enjoyed it, particularly because I had been reading a book I didn’t much care for right before it. This one made my world better.
What’s it about?
The movie version of The Remains of the Day is an elegant but sad love story between the butler and the housekeeper of an English estate between WWI and WWII. The butler’s uncompromising standards and obsession with his work doom their romantic relationship. The book version is an entirely different story. The attraction is still there, but it is secondary to the main plot. That story is about how the butler’s uncompromising standards and obsession with his work make him unable to hold his own opinions about literally anything else. Between the wars, some British, including the butler’s employer, Lord Darlingon, were trying to appease the Nazis. All the butler is able to do is go about his work. In this case, there is a conference between the Germans and the Brits in the house; it ends badly.
Why should you read it?
See, now this is a book about an awful yet sympathetic person that was a delight to read. Kazuo Ishiguro writes divinely, you sympathize with the butler who wants to do his job as best he can, and you see the German-British relationship for the tragedy it was. You might even mourn the end of the British Empire. While the book was entirely different than what I expected, I still enjoyed it.