Sitting in the restaurant of the Holiday Inn here in Long Beach, California, over warm plates of eggs and vegetable hash, my partner and I find ourselves discussing how to secure the film rights to a book called A Gentleman in Moscow.
As today is Father's Day, it's only fitting that my father was the one to introduce me to this book. Even so -- since trading titles is something of a family pastime, wherein some hit home and others miss -- I could not have known, when I hit "download" on the Kindle, how much I would come to love the character of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, and everything he stands for.
So much so that within hours of finishing the book, I turned to my partner, who had also read it, and sighed: "I miss the Count." And he smiled: "Me too."
My sister once said that you know you're reading a great story when you're driving somewhere, or running an errand, and the thought pops into your mind:
"I wonder how my friend is doing, with that problem (s)he was having?"
And then you remember: It's not your friend. It's a character in the book you're reading.
This is how one comes to feel about the Count, whom we first meet as a young man, when he is sentenced by the Red Party to a lifetime of house arrest inside his beloved Metropol Hotel -- for the crime of being "a Former Person" associated with the prior rule of the Tsar.
Immediately, we see Count Rostov react with humor and acceptance as he is promptly downsized from his elegant suite, full of family antiques, to a 10x10 room in the dusty attic of the disregarded 6th floor.
As the Count makes his daily rounds to the lobby, the Piazza, the barber, the tailor, the Shalyapin bar, and the Boyarsky dining room -- where everyone in Moscow comes to savor the creations of moody Chef Émile -- one wonders how anyone could cope with living inside a single building for the rest of one's life.
Against the backdrop of the Bolshevik Revolution -- whereby the class structure has been turned on its head and every tradition has been dispensed with and replaced -- one wonders how a lighthearted gentleman could find satisfaction in a society that has only contempt for him.
And yet -- over the course of the Count's lifetime, through his humorous musings, decisive action, and surprising friendships -- what emerges is a picture of a man who has humbly decided to master his circumstances; rather than allowing them to master him.
Through his story, we come to see what it means to be a gentleman -- a "Man of Intent" -- and all that is truly required, in order to live well.
So much so, in fact, that when it is finally suggested by his friend Mishka that the Count may be "the luckiest man in all of Moscow" -- it is easy to see how this could be true.
The role of a great character is not merely to entertain; but to give us a glimpse of ourselves.
For who among us has never felt trapped, unfairly persecuted, or terrified of change? And who among us has never needed the reminder -- that we are capable of transcendence?
If we could all live with as much humor, loyalty, resilience, and principle as the Count -- I daresay we'd be the luckiest people in all the world.