Our 2020 One Read selection, “A Gentleman in Moscow” (Viking, 2016) by Amor Towles, was picked before the pandemic hit, but it shares an uncanny connection with what many of us have experienced — the theme of confinement.
The book is about Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in the luxurious Hotel Metropol in Moscow by the Bolsheviks (later known as the Communist Party). Count Rostov experiences a tumultuous 30 years of Russian history from the limited perspective of his attic room with news of the world filtered through the hotel guests and employees he encounters.
It is remarkable how much The Count still witnesses, despite his confinement, and how much subject matter the author covers. Life continues, and, sometimes, we can have a wide range of experiences within a limited space. So, here are some other novels that explore a diverse array of human experience within very limited settings.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (A. A. Knopf, 1963) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is also about a Russian prisoner, but here the conditions are far worse than the Hotel Metropol. Ivan Desinovich is a Russian soldier serving a 10-year sentence in a Siberian labor camp after being falsely accused of treason. The book chronicles a single routine, dehumanizing day in the camp, from when Ivan gets up to when he goes to sleep. His struggle to maintain dignity throughout the day is the heart of this story.
“The Mayakovsky Tapes” (Thomas Dunne Books, 2016) by Robert Littell, takes us back to the famous Hotel Metropol, specifically room 408, in 1953. There, four women have gathered to reminisce about Vladimir Mayakovsky, a poet who became a national idol of Soviet Russia after his death. Each woman was a muse of the poet, and through their reminiscence a complex character emerges. Mayakovsky’s history reflects Russian history, from his time as a leader of the Futurist movement to his work as a propagandist for the Revolution and later censorship battles that turned him against the state.
Some borders are more confining than others. The one that separates North Korea from the rest of the world is so confining that life behind it is a mystery to most of the world. “The Accusation” (Grove Press, 2014) by Bandi is a collection of short stories that offers a glimpse behind the border. Published by an anonymous writer, and snuck into South Korea for publication, the book contains seven stories set during the period of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s leadership. These stories provide a vivid depiction of life in a dictatorship and a rare look at the people living in that very isolated nation.
“The Lady Matador’s Hotel” (Scribner, 2010) by Cristina Garcia takes place in an unnamed Central American capital in the midst of political turmoil. It follows six men and women, residents of the eponymous hotel, during a week when their lives become entangled and conflicts erupt. The intertwining stories form a caustic social critique of the horrors of oppression and violence.
“The Mezzanine” (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988) by Nicholson Baker, takes place during a one-story escalator ride. While embarking on this simple task, the narrator contemplates some of the mundane objects in our lives and activities we engage in. This de-familiarizes the familiar and becomes an exploration of the importance of everyday human experiences and the things around us.
The setting for “Cosmopolis” (Scribner, 2003) by Don DeLillo is the interior of a white stretch limousine. Inside rides a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager on his way across town to get a haircut. During this journey, he is in the middle of a risky bet against the yen and has many visitors and detours. The result is a perceptive, surreal and surprisingly epic story about a limo ride.
In “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (Penguin Press, 2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh, the unnamed narrator wants to spend a year in the confines of her bed. After inheriting a large sum of money, she quits her job at an art gallery and somehow finds a doctor willing to supply her with the right combination of drugs to sleep a year away. Despite the absurd conceit, the book is about very real concerns, like alienation and loneliness. Will this long nap heal the narrator?
I hope you’ve been able to read “A Gentleman in Moscow” and that it has helped expand your experience of the world, as many books can, during this time of social distancing. Perhaps some of these other titles can do the same. In September, you will be able to explore the topics and themes of the book online through discussions, an art exhibit and other programs, culminating with an author’s talk live via Zoom on Sept. 22. For more information, visit the One Read website at www.oneread.org.
Eric Schmeck is a public services librarian with Daniel Boone Regional Library.