Haunting Books: World War I and Its Aftermath

Today’s “haunting book” post features two historical novels, Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett, and A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. Follett’s book is a panorama of Europe and the U.S. from before World War I through that war’s conclusion. Towles’s book is an exquisite cameo of life in Russia after World War I into the 1950s.

While the first book sweeps from Russia to Germany and Austria to England and Wales, then across the Atlantic to the United States, the second novel takes place almost entirely in one Russian hotel after World War I has concluded. I liked Fall of Giants, but I loved A Gentleman in Moscow. And I learned some 20th Century history from both.

I call these books “haunting” because they depict war and deprivations. And because I keep thinking about them weeks and months after I read them.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

Fall of Giants is one of Follett’s epic novels, the first in his Century trilogy. It takes place between 1911 and 1934, with an emphasis on the 1914 through 1918 war years. I’d had it on my “to be read” list for a long time, but only got around to reading it this fall, when my book club chose it.

Frankly, the length of the novel daunted me. I’d read Pillars of the Earth, an earlier epic by Follett, and liked it. But I preferred his thrillers like The Key to Rebecca and Eye of the Needle. His thrillers are taut and tense, whereas the epics sprawl for almost a thousand pages.

Fall of Giants follows five families, and through them informs the reader about Welsh miners, English aristocrats and suffragettes, German noblemen and diplomats, Russian factory workers and revolutionaries, union workers in several nations, and U.S. Ivy-Leaguers and criminals. From his huge cast of characters, Follett crafts the tale of how the nations of Europe succumbed almost against their will to the temptations to fight a war that engulfed their continent and spread around the world.

I’d read Barbara Tuchman’s nonfiction books, The Guns of August and The Zimmermann Telegram, many years ago, but Follett’s novel was a good refresher on the causes of the war, if on a rudimentary level. My husband read Fall of Giants a few years ago, and called it “comic book history.” I don’t read nearly as much nonfiction as he reads, so I found it about the right mix of history and story.

This is a novel drive by world events, not by character, and its plot suffers quite a bit to serve history. Most of the characters were stereotypes to serve a particular group in history. Some of the encounters between the characters in Fall of Giants were so coincidental as to be obvious constructs on the author’s part so he could depict some historical event or development. Also, because there are so many characters, it was often hard to remember who was who and what their role in the story was. Moreover, Follett resorted to telling the reader what to think, instead of letting his reader figure it out. So to that extent, my husband was right to call the story a “comic book.”

Nevertheless, the history was true enough to be educational, even when the story sagged. The opportunity to get an overview of World War I, the English suffragette movement, and the Russian Revolution, while also learning about Welsh mining, international diplomacy and its failures, and the U.S. Prohibition years made reading the novel a satisfactory experience. Call it “Downton Abbey on steroids.” Still, I’m not sure if I want to invest my time in the rest of the Century trilogy.

If reading Fall of Giants is like a 2000-mile road trip through the hell of war, then A Gentleman in Moscow is a quiet evening beside the fire.

I could curl up and be amused at the antics of Count Alexander Rostov during his thirty years of house arrest at the luxurious Metropol hotel in Moscow. He had the run of the hotel, but he could not leave the premises. The Russian authorities attempted to deprive him of all semblance of his aristocratic past, but he built a meaningful life in his ten-foot-square room with the last of his family’s heirlooms.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rostov’s transformation from a pampered aristocrat into a mensch of the first order. Despite his confinement, Rostov managed to build a family from the guests and hotel personnel he encountered, develop a sense of social justice, and outwit the Bolshevik thugs who replaced the former nobility frequenting the hotel.

The plot of A Gentleman in Moscow is not very credible. Even assuming a man would be placed on house arrest in a beautiful hotel and able to retain many amenities from his past noble life, I had a hard time believing he could foster a child and maintain a romance with a famous actress under these circumstances. Still, Rostov’s relationships were so charming and he was such a courtly gentleman, that I willingly suspended my disbelief.

Amor Towles’s writing in A Gentleman in Moscow is erudite and exquisite, unlike Ken Follett’s more clunky prose. Towles’s language illustrates his main character’s education and wit and also contributes to the charm of the book. Reading the novel was akin to having dinner with an amusing raconteur, with rich food and richer conversation. Much like some of the meals in the Metropol hotel that Rostov and his accomplices concocted despite the lousy Stalinist economy.

I read Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, and liked its depiction of New York society in the 1930s. But there was an ugly side to that story that A Gentleman in Moscow avoids. Perhaps that makes Towles’s second novel less realistic, but it also makes it more engaging. Not since Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand have I enjoyed immersing myself in a fictional world so much. Both Count Rostov and Major Pettigrew are true gentlemen, of the type that one no longer finds often in the real world.

What’s the latest good book you’ve read?

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