A Gentlemen in Moscow by Amor Towles is a beautiful read, a valuable lesson in life enjoyment, under adverse circumstances. The Count is placed under arrest in a hotel in Moscow after the Russian Revolution. Well mannered and with a personal preference for a sybaritic life style, The Count spends several decades in what has become his home. He exercises every morning, 20 push-ups, 20 sit-ups, 20 squats, has wine and dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and cherishes his book collection in his room that has suddenly narrowed down, it is no longer the first class, first floor apartment facing the square, but a room in the atic, which he rearranges himself with his most valuable possessions. The pen inherited from his father or a pair of crafted scissors, shaped as an elegant long necked bird, inherited from his grandmother, are examples of such objects of memory and meaning. Despite the material constraints of his new situation, he is well equipped for life enjoyment. He gets an actress lover, who visits the hotel from time to time and even teaches manners to a member of the Communist Party.
He fights a duel, but chooses to refrain from finishing off his opponent. Why?
There is nothing honourable about finishing off an opponent that lacks the aristocratic breeding.
There is nothing honourable about winning at chess over an opponent that doesn’t even know how to play chess in the first place.
There is nothing honourable about finishing off an opponent who is not equally equipped.
And there is nothing honourable about winning over a lady, although you could do that, of course, better let the lady have her way and you might win her heart. And everybody will be happy. Unless, of course, the lady agreed to compete by fair means.
A healthy competition is the kind of competition done in sports, open and transparent, with clear rules and a referee blowing a whistle. Learning fair play from young age is definitory for our development. Sports and chess are ways to channel the natural competitiveness of people. To play instead of fight.
Winning by unfair means is not winning, but cheating. And this is what every coach should teach his pupils.
Furthermore, Amor Towles has another interesting novel and literary plead for elegance: Rules of Civility. The fictional plot is complemented at the end of the book with an extensive list of the aforementioned Rules of Civility, covering the required etiquette and recommendable manners in all kinds of situations, rules which include, for instance: “44th: When a man does all he can, though it succeeds not, blame not him that did it”. A reminder that success is dependent also on external circumstances and the controllable part of success consists in nothing else, but our own efforts.