Douglas Burns
Douglas Burns

April 26, 2018

Even those who have watched “Casablanca” dozens of times, who have committed secondary lines to easily recitable memory, probably didn’t catch a seemingly throwaway gesture.

Amid the wartime chaos in Rick’s Cafe, the boozing, brooding Humphrey Bogart spots a tipped cocktail glass. He calmly adjusts it upright, a small act to defy the madness.

And that scene, says author Amor Towles, is the inspiration for the main character in his deeply affecting novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow.”

How do people adapt to head-spinning changes to circumstance, economic misfortune, rapid cultural shifts or even national leadership that severs emotional moorings?

Do you quit? Jump off the roof?

“Or do I try to rebel in some way,” Towles said Monday night at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.

The New York author spoke to hundreds of people in the school auditorium as part of the Des Moines Public Library’s Authors Visiting in Des Moines series.

Towles, a former investment professional who earned a master’s degree in English from Stanford University, is my favorite contemporary American author — and in a runaway fashion. I’m a better person for reading his works. There are no wasted words with Towles. He blends a rare insight into the human condition with a gift for exacting language, sentences that stick with you pages and days later.

“For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim,” Towles writes.

“A Gentleman in Moscow,” a work of fiction, chronicles the life of Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat sentenced in 1922 by the ascendent Bolsheviks to house arrest in a Moscow hotel, The Metropol, an eminent structure across from the Kremlin. Under communism, Rostov is stripped of title and privilege and possessions. He must rebuild a life in which the superfluous trappings of high society no longer define him.

Eventually becoming as a waiter in the hotel, and living in a modest room, forging bonds among those who previously served him, the dignified Rostov soon counts himself as a member of what Towles brilliantly terms the Confederacy of the Humbled.

“The Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance,” Towles writes. “For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.”

It took me 48 years of life to find a creed that fits; what you just read from Towles is it.

As we age, and realize life doesn’t always turn the way wish it, that randomness and luck are hidden handmaidens of our own fates, the way we conduct ourselves in the daily interactions with people, the small kindnesses, the instinctive and careful decencies, become more front and center in our self-identities — if we are truly humbled in the way of Towles’ Count Rostov — who offers something of a guide for living within this richly constructed fiction.

The count finds dignity in labor, in sacrificing in ways large and small for others.

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” Rostov says in one penetrating Towles passage. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka — and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

So run to those inconveniences in life. They are, as the count shows, life itself.

Thanks to Amor Towles, I learned this before it was too late.