The Rules of Civility

One of the best books I have read in recent years is “A Gentleman in Moscow” – a book that tells the story of Alexander Rostov, a member of the aristocracy, who, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, is sentenced to life imprisonment for writing a counter-revolutionary “poem.” The good news for Count Rostov: his sentence is to be served in Moscow’s famed Hotel Metropole, where he is confined to a small attic room. In a 2016 review of “A Gentleman in Moscow” The Washington Post described Count Rostov’s Hotel Metropole as “transfixing, full of colourful characters, some transitory, others permanent: mostly fictional, some historical.” Also that the book has “some derring-do in the latter parts” (and in my opinion, a terrific ending). The Post reviewer wondered, as I did, why Hollywood “hasn’t snapped this (book) up?’’ (It has since been optioned to be produced as a mini-series).

The Post headlined the review, “A Gentleman in Moscow is a charming reminder of what it means to be classy.” That should make it mandatory reading for a number of politicians and so-called “celebrities.” Any come to mind?

The dining room of the present-day Hotel Metropole is shown in the preceding photograph. According to Trip Advisor, a one-night stay at the Hotel will set you back slightly more than 500 bucks U.S.

Amor Towles, wrote “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Mr. Towles holds an M.A. in English from Stanford University, but spent some 20 years as an investment professional before turning to writing full time. He is pictured below – looking every bit the writer.

Mr. Towles first wrote “The Rules of Civility.” While not nearly as engrossing as “A Gentleman” it is a great read in itself. “The Rules of Civility” was described in a New York Times review as a “snappy period piece” in which Towles “resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age of screwball comedy …”

The novel follows Katey Kontent, who in 1966 is transported back three decades to a New Year’s Eve that changed the path her life might otherwise have taken. That night Katey and her friend Eve first met Tinker Grey. Without going into further detail, I will tell you that Tinker (who names their child Tinker?) lives his life according to rules of civility laid down by George Washington. It turns out that Washington, as a 16 year old school boy, copied “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” from 12 year old Francis Hawkins, who had in 1640 translated the “Rules” from French into English. The “Rules” originated with French Jesuits in 1595.

It is remarkable that Washington took the trouble to copy into his notebook the 110 “Rules of Civility.” Not surprising that he went on to do such great things.

The “Rules” are easily sourced, so I won’t reference all 110 here, despite the fact that many of them are rules to live by even today. Here are several of my favourites:

11th – “Shift not yourself in the Sight of others, nor Gnaw your nails.” (On a cross-Atlantic flight years ago, I was seated in business class next to a man, who, as soon as the plane took off, began to chew his nails. I asked him politely if he planned to gnaw them for the next six hours. He wasn’t happy with my question, and moved to another seat to annoy someone else.)

15th – “Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean without Shewing any great Concern for them.” (Yes, nails again. And speaking of teeth, Washington was not a model of oral hygiene. Contrary to the myth that he had wooden dentures, the fact is that his false teeth were a combination of gold, ivory, brass, and human and animal teeth.)

44th – When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it. (I will try to remember this on the golf course.)

54th – “Play not the Peacock, looking every where about you, to See if you be well Deck’t, if your Shoes fit well if your Stockings sit neatly, and Cloths handsomely.” (It is the Peacock part that attracted me to this rule, which takes on a slightly different meaning at my gym where some are determined to wear out the mirrors.)

62nd – “Speak not of doleful Things in a Time of Mirth or at the Table …” (It goes on a bit longer, but I am reminded of Count Rostov’s dinner table rule that conversation be steered away from politics, religion and personal sorrows.)

89th – “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.” (If politics, religion and personal sorrows are literally off the table, and now malicious gossip; future dinner parties are going to be pretty bland.)

110th – “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience.”

(Nice place to end. There are 103 more gems here).