Recently I read two very different novels, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, and Wayne Johnston’s The Mystery of Right and Wrong. What these books have in common is their spellbinding power, the power to pull me away from the worries, work, and mundanity of “real life.” I became fully immersed in the worlds these exceptional writers created. What did I care about insomnia as I read these books during the dark wee hours of January?
These two books cast different kinds of spells. A Gentleman in Moscow is thoroughly romantic. Its hero is the (pre-Revolutionary) Russian aristocrat Count Alexander Rostoff, who is experienced in duelling over women, fluent in multiple languages, and a connoisseur of fine food and wines. Yet it is after he is sentenced to life imprisonment in Moscow’s glamorous Metropol hotel that we understand the deeper substance of a true aristocrat and gentleman.
By contrast, The Mystery of Right and Wrong is itself a mystery novel in which the main narrator is trying to understand his beloved fiancée’s strange behaviour. Why is Rachel compelled to read The Diary of Anne Frank over and over, in multiple languages and multiple editions? Why does she scribble for hours every day in her journal, at times to the point of collapsing in exhaustion, without producing a book or any other coherent piece of writing? Her compulsiveness seems to be tied to her family background, because her three sisters and her parents are all peculiar in their own ways. The mystery gradually morphs into horror as the story progresses.
More about A Gentleman in Moscow
This book is a pure pleasure to read. The action starts in 1922 when Count Alexander Rostov is spared being shot (as many of Russia’s former aristocracy were after the 1917 Revolution) and is “only” sentenced to lifelong house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. The Count is forced to move from his luxurious suite on the third floor to a tiny attic room on the sixth floor, so he must abandon most of his treasured furniture and other possessions that were once part of life on a grand estate.
The book eventually covers the next three decades of the Count’s life, as he moves from his early thirties to his early sixties. And what a setting the Metropol Hotel proves to be! The book’s energy and intrigue never flag. Within the hotel’s walls, the Count manages to conduct a decades-long love affair with a beautiful actress, make friends with a precocious nine-year-old girl, and take on the role of father to an abandoned 5-year-old girl whose intelligence and talent he nurtures until she becomes a world-class pianist. With his best friends in the hotel, the famed dining room’s chef and maitre ’d, Count Rostov (who becomes the restaurant’s headwaiter) is privy to the intimate conversations of the country’s new political leaders. His worldly knowledge is also informed by the time he spends in the hotel’s bar, where international journalists gather most evenings.
Towles is an incredible storyteller; the book’s momentum makes it hard to put down. The climax includes suspense, trickery, and violence. For the first time the setting moves away from the Metropol hotel. The ending was most satisfying, but I was sorry there were no more pages left to read.
One thing I loved about this book was the way it showed how full of adventure, discovery, relationships, and humour life can be even within strict confinements. This is something we can think about amid the pandemic restrictions we have been living through for almost two years now. To be sure, the Metropol hotel is an exceptional building; yet I found much to admire in the Count’s adaptations to his imprisonment. He created ways to stay healthy, mentally and physically; he nurtured his closest friendships; and he kept his sense of humour and his keen intellectual curiosity, always. That is why we, as readers, are entertained on every page.
More about The Mystery of Right and Wrong
Even though Johnston is a well-known Canadian writer, I hadn’t read anything by him before. This book was gripping. It was suspenseful and mysterious. The book is written from the points of view of two narrators, though one (Wayde) is clearly the dominant one. I was particularly intrigued by the interludes of clever poetry (supposedly from two different long poetical works) that were connected with the unfolding story.
The story seems to be a realistic one. Early on, there are clues that seem to subtly suggest sexual abuse as a possible cause of the female character’s strange behaviour. Wayde is in love with Rachel, yet how can he feel secure about their relationship, given the peculiarity of her family members and the fact that she abandons him and their relationship for a year? As the book progresses, the events and characters become increasingly shocking and gruesome. The elegant, yet disturbing, poetry interludes continue; the writing is never cheap or sensationalized.
Yet the horror of the story became so extreme that at times I wondered whether I should keep reading. I was unable to stop.
I didn’t fully realize what an extraordinary achievement this book was for Wayne Johnston until I read the 10-page Author’s Afterword. [Spoiler Alert!] It was then I discovered that Johnston based this novel on his own personal story. This book is the culmination of six years of work and many more years of planning how to tell the story as a creative work of fiction. Johnston’s honesty and artistic achievement blew me away. Also, as with the many books by the late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, I learned more about the amazing variety and extremities of human abilities and survival mechanisms. In this case I learned about hypergraphia In this case I learned about hypergraphia (the compulsive desire to write or draw). Johnston himself has this disorder, but in his novel applied it to his main female character rather than to his fictional double, Wayde. In his Afterward, Johnston describes how he has been able to channel his hypergraphia productively in his career as a writer.
We can all escape our prisons
Both A Gentleman in Moscow and The Mystery of Right and Wrong allowed me to escape from reality. But, more than that, they reminded me to put my own worries and challenges in perspective.
Johnston’s novel (and the true story behind it) showed that even horrific circumstances and painful disabilities can be overcome. Johnston and his wife aren’t merely survivors; they have created full lives and great art.
Towles’ book reminded me of the richness of life and human experiences. Even when circumstances seem to limit us, we can use our imaginations to expand our worlds. There are no limits when it comes to human ingenuity, love, and the ability to find laughter in the face of absurdity.
Find your enchantment.