Watching Donald Trump boast of grabbing women’s genitals, embrace racism, insult his allies, lie like a rug and cozy up to dictators can get to a person. It feels overwhelming, many days.
But it’s not just the United States' lout of a president that’s troubling. The whole world seems less civil. Social media, Twitter in particular, have become self-perpetuating engines of outrage and insult. Strangers living in different countries attack each other in personal terms over issues as small as the casting of a Hollywood movie. Politicians everywhere are mimicking Mr. Trump’s puerile name-calling, and road rage is a daily occurrence in big cities. The courtesy and respect we once showed our fellow humans are getting shoved aside as boors dominate our social worlds, both online and off.
As always, books are there to help us escape. One option this summer is to further enrich the British writer Lee Child and follow along as his moralizing hero, Jack Reacher, satisfyingly crushes the esophagi of wholly deserving bad guys.
The other, no less cathartic, option is to find a copy of A Gentleman in Moscow by the American author Amor Towles and read about Count Alexander Rostov, a civilized man trapped in uncivil times who makes the decision to rise above it all.
“The Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice,” the book’s third-person narrator tells us. "The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.”
The Count’s circumstances are dire. A privileged and sophisticated child of the extravagant Tsarist age, at 30 he finds himself on the wrong side of the Russian revolution. Barely escaping the executioner’s bullet, he is sentenced to permanent house arrest, under threat of death, in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow.
Which he is fine with at first, until he discovers that his luxurious suite in the famed art-nouveau hotel (which really exists) has been given to a Bolshie apparatchik, and that he has been exiled to a tiny servant’s quarters on the building’s dusty and forgotten top floor.
Rostov flirts with suicide. But he pulls himself back from the literal brink on the hotel’s roof and decides to make the best of his lot. He puts his social skills and natural diplomacy to work as a server in the dining room, where he quickly becomes head waiter. From there the novel blossoms, in part, into a loving homage to life in a grand hotel, from the comings and goings of famous and powerful guests, to the details of the lives of the quirky and colourful people who live and work there.
If you like great European hotels, with their ornate foyers, elegant dining rooms and refined bars, you will love this book. The same is true if you share the count’s view that life shouldn’t be hurried, that we should treat each other with respect and courtesy at all times, and that remaining gracious in difficult situations is an overlooked quality in a world that seems determined to reward those who fly into outrage over the smallest thing.
Towles’s book is filled with lovely passages about these manifestations of our better natures, but none is more memorable than the one about what he calls the “Confederacy of the Humbled.”
These are the many people, such as Rostov, who have suffered a fall from grace and have accepted its biggest lessons; that is, to "greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.”
Those are good words to remember when Mr. Trump tweets his next abomination, in about one hour from now. His time at the top will be fleeting, but our capacity for grace and kindness are eternal.