Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

September #2: More on A Gentleman in Moscow

Why is it that writing challenges are so appealing? For September, the #BlogBattle challenge is simply one word: Conceal.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about being enamored by reading Amor Towles, A Gentlemen in Moscow. Truly a leisurely read, one that inspires reflection of what those years from 1917 through about 1950 brought Russia – in sweeping change and on individual lives. Towles’ story-telling transforms the reader as he reveals how Russia, within a generation, despite its history, was transformed. 

One scene highlights how a revolutionary’s idea of a ‘poetry of silence’ came about. For in the beginning of the Russian revolution, we can recognize the purity of those early, idealistic comrades who overthrew the oppression of the long established aristocracy. 

Over decades, though, Russia transformed itself into a world power at tremendous cost, its new leaders susceptible to the same glamour of world dominion (and comfort) those comrades had originally challenged and, for a time, set aside. One character, Mishka, rebels against a ‘request’ that he revise his translation of Chekov’s letters so that it falls in line to ‘newer,’ always positive images of Russia. No criticism allowed.

Mishka realizes if he refuses to change his translation, he might be lined up against a wall and shot. A poet himself, he knows at that moment, nothing could be more powerful than to act himself, not with words, not with a poem, but with a self-inflicted death, a revolver at his own chest. He chooses not to create this ‘poetry of silence.’ Instead, Mishka rages. He protests loudly and is sent to Siberia. Is it a character flaw that he didn’t choose death? And did he stop writing or was his writing, his ability to write, taken from him?

A little later in Towles’ story, another character recalls visiting Pushkin’s apartment, carefully maintained in its ‘original’ condition – even to an unfinished poem left on a desk for any visitor to see.

Once, while Allen and I traveled in Brazil, we had the absolute privilege of staying in an out-of-the-way, tiny bed and breakfast, just down a side street in the small town of Ouro Prieto, where Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had stayed many years before. We slept in the very same room and looked out the window at the hills. His letters were framed on the wall. Later, we visited Valparaiso, Neruda’s house on the hill, perfectly preserved, now turned to a museum. On a side desk, a poem, the words written in ink, by Neruda's own hand, still lay. Was it half finished? I do not remember.

Somehow this connects to this month’s #BattleBlog prompt for September, though I’m not sure yet how. What do we conceal? How are ‘true’ stories revealed?  Come back next Wednesday for my story, if you like.

Just for your reading pleasure, you can read a poem I wrote about Pablo Neruda and a translation, for what happens to words in a poem when they move from one language to another? 

Meanwhile, be safe and follow your dreams.


  1. Hi, Beth! I enjoyed reading your account of staying in Ouro Prieto and Valparaiso. How wonderful! I am in awe of poets and poetesses! I liked your vivid poem and learning about Pablo Neruda. There is nothing like traveling to expand your mind! all the best to you!

    1. How could we not be inspired by poets in these uncertain times! And with OctPoWriMo just two weeks away. I hope you have time on your walking journey to write a line or two of poetry, to capture the essence of your journey, those awesome sights! Thank you for stopping by.

  2. That book sure left a huge impression on you, Beth! I’m learning you are a super multi-talented author, what with your historical fiction, poems, and travel memoir. I’m so glad you manage to follow your passion of writing and - hopefully soon again - travel! And, I hope there are no fires near you.

    1. Hello, Liesbet. I finally finished it! Some books need that leisurely read, though I must confess these days, I read more for escape than reflection. We do have a few fires nearby, but nothing more threatening than smoke. Actually, heavy smoke with the air quality index nearly 500. Thank goodness, that AQI is down to 336 this morning, but still hazardous to venture out. To say nothing of travel. But we have tomorrow . . . I hope there are no fires near you!

    2. Thank goodness, indeed. No fires near us as we are still "safe and sound" in Massachusetts!