“Having acknowledged that a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them, the Count thought it worth considering how one was most likely to achieve this aim when one had been sentenced to a life of confinement.” — A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles
“. . . reading literary fiction helps people develop empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking” according to neuroscience research. That’s good, because I am doing a lot of reading, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Currently many bestsellers and best-reads are set during the early 1900’s and the world wars. Are we now far enough removed from that time to learn from it?
A recent non-fiction read, No Ordinary Men, chronicles the strength and bravery of Nazi resisters and then notes that later, fellow countrymen denounced them as traitors denying the horrors in their own neighborhoods. Sometimes the truth is too raw. Sometimes the truth is easier to swallow if set in fiction. Fiction allows the reader to distance herself while processing the information.
Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it occurred to me to revisit A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Let me be clear, though; I do not minimize the reality of true oppression as experienced by too many people in too many situations to name. But I think we can learn from those who have lived through trying times. A Gentleman in Moscow is fiction bearing truths.
How do we conduct ourselves when “sentenced to a life of confinement,” social, political, or currently medical? It would be easy to discount the life of Count Rostov as fictional but for the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi who conducted themselves with integrity through a time of hell on earth.
What we face now is how to live our highest ideals during a time of restrictions that we Baby Boomers have never had to face. It is a time to define those ideals, to live out those ideals. The characters in both of these books made mistakes. But they acknowledged them, learned from them, and became even more remarkable people. Reading inspires me to use this pandemic to become more fully human.