Who would have thought the life of former President Hamilton would make good theatre, or that T. S. Elliot’s reference to cats in, “The Waste Land” would inspire a Broadway musical? Certainly, I’d have scoffed at either project had they been suggested to me. That both theatricals succeeded lays bare a truth. Some people have more talent than they need and could probably grow orchids in a jar of hydrochloric acid. I envy them and not always kindly.
Armor Towles’ new book, A Gentleman in Moscow has an equally bizarre storyline. His central character, a Russian aristocrat in 1929, has been placed under indefinite house arrest at a luxurious hotel around the corner from the Kremlin. In the case of art imitating life, Julian Assange, hold up in an Ecuadorian Embassy since 2010, springs to mind. So does Madame Claude, a famous French prostitute, imprisoned for two years in a palace. (Blog 9/29/14). Eloise, is a fictional character, of course, but she does live at the tippy top of the Plaza Hotel. Still, none of these precedents shaped Towles’ idea. What he recalls is Ernest Hemingway’s decision to barricade himself at the Barclay’s hotel in New York to write, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Towles admits to a fascination with the lobbies of grand hotels of the past. Designed not to escape the hurly-burly of city life but to invite it in, they are a far cry from today’s architectural designs where cloistered lobbies hold the world at bay. (“Suite Success,” Armor Towles, Town&Country, September 2016, pg. 98.)
Hemingway seems to have chosen the Barclay precisely for “the quiet if offered rather than a chance of carousal,” the author speculates. (Ibid pg. 98.) He admits to doing the same for his novel. His central character, however, lives in a different setting — an existence confined to a hotel in the grand scale of Belle Époque, a stage where life is “..more likely to barge through the door, strike up a conversation at the bar and may even invite you to dinner.” (Ibid pg. 98.)
Writing in a secluded hotel, cosseted from interruption and where one’s every need is met, sounds ideal for a writer. But place is so central to a novel, I understand why Towles imprisoned his hero in the cosmos of a Russian lobby. Which brings me to a question apropos of nothing. If I were faced with imprisonment, where would I like to be confined? I don’t hesitate to answer. “Gendarme, take me to your Louvre.”