Crack the spine divine
Sunday in the Park
Park Record columnist
It is rare for me to finish a book, want to return to the start, and immediately reread it. That isn’t to say there aren’t books I love to reread. “Dandelion Wine” at the start of a summer. “To Kill a Mockingbird” any time.
But to end a long story full of nuanced characters in another country over a time span of decades, one full of romance and politics and mystery and history and all kinds of love, is something so delicious you say, “Damn the consequences,” and look for snippets of time you can take bites of the book.
“A Gentleman in Russia” was not on my radar. Amor Towles also wrote “Rules of Civility,” a pleasant read, a few years ago. But I had forgotten him, which is no disrespect. I read a lot. All the time. I read everything. Stories on the internet from the foreign press, menus, matchbook covers, magazines (domestic and foreign), cookbooks, how-to books, newspapers from various cities, so many books, so very many books that I can forget them. Like good meals in comfortable restaurants, satisfying enough at the time but nothing to distinguish themselves over time.
Books made into movies have a certain sticking power. The film either lived up to the characters in the book or failed miserably. There never seems to be a middle ground.
“The Harry Potter” series being an example of success. “The English Patient” another.
In the case of “Eat, Pray, Love,” I loved the movie and couldn’t finish the self- indulgent book. That said, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of said book, gave one of my all-time favorite TED talks on creativity. It is about genius. She goes back to the Greeks in her theories. We all have a genius. And as she described, it is a bit like Dobby, the house elf in “Harry Potter.” An unpredictable, unreliable, moody creature who doesn’t always make himself known. But when he (she) does, we need to be ready to welcome them. So we show up to do the work and we hope our genius will appear. We are not the genius. We invite the genius in.
This is critically useful information for all creative folks to remember. Whether it be the visual artist, the musician or the film maker. Show up day after week after year. Do the work. Be ready for that tornado moment when your genius appears and honor him or her. Let him or her in. And understand the illusive nature of the bargain.
I was in Dolly’s Bookstore about a month ago, in search of a new read and I asked Sue, who has guided me through literary adventures for over a decade now, for something I could chew on. A meaty read. She asked if I had heard of “A Gentleman in Russia.” I confessed I had not. She said, “You may like it.” She didn’t say, “You must read this book. It will change your life.”
Sue is a longtime, wise book seller. We never know how someone else reads and understands hundreds of pages of words. Where they are in their life. How receptive they are. How the trajectory of their reading has prepared them or not for a substantial read. The book is just shy of 500 pages. Printed in a clean typeface on creamy, thick, rough-edged paper. It is substantial to hold in the chair, in the bed, in the bathtub. It rested on my chest in front of fires, when I fell asleep in bed at night, when I cracked its spine, curled up in my overstuffed chair during the holidays. When I was a bit overstuffed myself. And I was so in wonder at the ending I did not see coming, so delighted at the clever subtle author and his genius style, that I flipped right back to the first few pages to reread where the journey started.
And I can tell you, because it is just in the first few pages you learn, you are in the end of Tsar-ist Russia in 1922 in a courtroom where Count Rostov, born in St Petersberg, is charged with writing a poem that is deemed propaganda. He is living, at the moment, in Hotel Metropol in Russia. The inquisitor asks him, “Why did you write the poem?”
And he responds, “It demanded to be written. I simply happened to be sitting at the particular desk on the particular morning when it chose to make its demands.”
Ah, I think upon reading that exchange of the illusive construct of genius. And then I spend every free moment moving through decades in Russia through the eyes of Count Rostov as he is sentenced to live inside the Hotel Metropol for life. We see him become a top waiter, a lover, a spy, a trusted friend and father. While living first in a suite of rooms and then in a tiny room, high up in a tower. We are introduced to American films and high ranking politicians. We learn about beautiful meals and beautiful service and beautiful friendships and all the patterns of love that require indulgence and care taking and sacrifice.
And at the very end, we learn we were, all along, in the hands of genius, who took us on a journey and rewarded us with deep satisfaction.
I am re-reading this book with a kind of delight I wish for any reader. I envy those who will pick up this book not knowing the journey and staying ready for it, for the candlelit literary dinners ahead and the mischief and kindness among those who serve.
Allow yourself an indulgent read to start the new year. Something that will take you off your screen and place you far away in another time zone in another country and another story other than your own. There are all kinds of ways to stay healthy. How you eat and how you move get a lot of attention in the new year. Don’t forget to feed your head on any day, but certainly this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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Teri Orr is navigating the first stages of life after the pandemic. “How do we be respectful and also celebrate our double vax position? Where do we land on say … a shared bowl of guacamole now — do you dip or spoon?”