After the Russian Revolution Count Alexander Illyich Rostov, aristocrat and bon vivant, is imprisoned in the luxurious Hotel Metropol. Not in his usual suite but a tiny attic. From here he watches the world change around him. Helping me choose a #NovelPairing for this charming chronicle are James Franklin from Corney & Barrow and Simon Heafield from Foyles.
“Every period has its virtues,” claims the eternally optimistic Count Alexander Illyich Rostov – recipient of the order of Saint Andrew, member of the jockey club, master of the hunt and sometime poet. 1922 is not the best year for aristocrats in Russia but, because he once wrote a poem praising the proletariat, Rostov escapes the Tsar’s fate. Instead, he is sentenced to life in the famous Hotel Metropol, in an attic with a tiny window. How does, or doesn’t, the world outside change? And what of him?
Rostov maintains daily routine from a breakfast of fruit and coffee to nightly brandy. “If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” Rostov certainly masters the maxim but manages to avoid whimsy because he’s known true love and real loss.
Soon, routine threatens his sanity. He must, like the world outside, change. For the first time in his lucky life he ventures below stairs: “The effortless elegance on display would not have existed without the services of the Lower Floors.” Here he finds purpose, we’ll say no more.
The Count becomes part of the hotel’s cast along with ‘unflappable Arkady’, ‘sweet Valentina’ and the bloodless bureaucrat known as The Bishop. He’s a bon viveur but no snob: “Judge a gentleman by his bearing, his remarks and his manners. Not by the cut of his coat. Humans deserve not just our consideration but our reconsideration.” So, former servants become friends and fellow guests become family.
Towles unveiled his novel at my Literary Salon at The Savoy. “Grand hotels have a life of their own,” he said, over a stern. “With their own rhythms and rules. The Metropol is a constant.”
“The Count couldn’t survive outside,” says Simon from Foyles. “It’s a gilded cage that protects him from the revolutions.”
“Rostov is a true gentleman,” says James from Corney & Barrow who studied Russian and lived there. “He’s quintessentially Russian—poetic, tortured, elegant and perfectly correct. He truly knows wine-deeply understands the romance and roots of terroir.”
In a brutish bid to make all wine equal – as he wishes all men to be – the Bishop removes all the labels from the Metropol’s 100,000 strong cellar. Everything is now merely red or white. But the Count knows every bottle contains a story, if you know how to read it: “Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself.”
“It’s the only novel I know where a bottle of wine changes the plot,” says James. “I had trouble shortlisting just three. Up first is Guy de Chassey Grand Cru Brut NV. Champagne is a real Imperial symbol. This is mostly pinot noir so especially rich and velvety.”
Chardonnay dominated fizz is often too sharp for me. This is a bowl of summer fruit pudding smothered in cream. “It’s even got a slight blush,” says Simon, admiringly. It is delicious!
“Up next, Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc Les Becs Fins Tardieu-Laurent 2016,” says James. “We know the Count loves the Rhone especially Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When he and his friends, the Triumvirate, cook a bouillabaisse in secret they each bring a bottle. This would match perfectly.”
Indeed, it would. Viognier based, there’s a real honey hit but it’s not sweet and can definitely handle garlic and Pernod.
Finally, we try Corney & Barrow Rioja Crianza Bodegas Zugober. “No spoilers, but this is a tongue-in-cheek pick based on the wine list tussle between the Count and the Bishop,” says James. “Aged for two years, at least one in oak.”
Looks like ruby, tastes like plum, would silence Rioja doubters. “Even the Count would approve,” says Simon.
In truth, they’re all perfect picks: Champagne to please any prince and a Rhone begging for bouillabaisse – I cooked one just so I could taste this wine with it! This book brims with moments and details, which turn out to be meaningful and momentous later. Without giving away a pleasing plot point, the Rioja is a secret worth savouring making it our quintessential #NovelPairing.