Literature and Amor Towles | Fr. Jacob-Bertrand Janczyk & Fr. Patrick Briscoe

June 27, 2024

Fr. Patrick Brisco: This is Father Patrick Briscoe.

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: And this is Father Jacob-Bertrand Janczyk. 

Fr. Patrick: Welcome to Godsplaining. Thanks to all who support us. If you enjoy the show, please consider making a monthly donation to us on Patreon. Be sure to like and subscribe to Godsplaining wherever you listen to your podcasts. Friends, before we dive into this episode, which is going to be very amazing with myself and Father Jacob-Bertrand, I just have one announcement for our priest listeners, those of you who are our brother priests who tuned into the show, we want to direct your attention to the St. Paul Center’s priesthood conferences. For nearly two decades, the St. Paul Center has been training Catholics to read the Scriptures from the heart of the Church, and they have amazing conferences for priests. So during these conferences, priest attendees join world class theologians and scholars like Dr. Scott Han, John Bergsmah, and many others for biblical formation, fraternity and spiritual renewal. We’re mentioning these conferences because we believe in them. They’re fantastic and they’re among the best kept secrets for clergy in America. So if you are a priest, consider joining in one of the three annual conferences for priests coming up in 2025. Visit That’s to learn more or sign up today. Father Jacob-Bertrand… 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Good pitch. 

Fr. Patrick: We have- thank you. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah. 

Fr. Patrick: Well, I’m not gonna put you on the spot, but you should consider going, too. (laughing) 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Why would you put, what were you gonna ask if I was gonna…

Fr. Patrick: Yes.  

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Father, I’m busy. 

Fr. Patrick: I know. You’ve got to Gods-splain, you’ve got to hanover-splain, you’ve got to St. Dennis-splain. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yep. 

Fr. Patrick: You know, so a lot of ‘splaining. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yep. 

Fr. Patrick: It takes a lot of time. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: That’s right. 

Fr. Patrick: It’s very demanding. What’s on your book case lately? What have you been reading? 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: That’s a good question. I have been, I’ve been in a kind of history kick since the fall. 

Fr. Patrick: Me too, actually. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Really? 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, I’m curious to know what the– 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: But for, I did read the Dune series, which I really liked. Did we do an episode on Dune? We did. You and I did, right? On the first Dune movie? 

Fr. Patrick: I don’t think we did. I think there’s a fake memory, but we should. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: No, I’m almost positive. 

Fr. Patrick: Did we do an episode? 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Maybe with Father Bonaventure? 

Fr. Patrick: Darn, okay. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Anyways, there’s a second movie so we could do this, you know. 

Fr. Patrick: More episodes. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Right. So I read that, but besides that, starting in the fall, what is his name? I forgot in his name. He… 

Fr. Patrick: (Laughing) Father Bonaventure? 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: No, no, no, the author that I was reading, the author that I was reading. He wrote a bunch, he’s contemporary, like historian who writes popular history and kind of things. So- 

Fr. Patrick: The American series, not David McCullen. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: No, no, no. He wrote and it’s not Martha’s Vineyard. What was the big whaling island off of, what’s it Martha’s Vineyard? No. I’m like totally… Nantucket. So he’s from Nantucket. He wrote a bit – 

Fr. Patrick: I’m not convinced you’ve read any of this. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: No, he wrote a book on Nantucket, the island itself, the history of Nantucket. He wrote a book on, I forgot the name of the whaling ship, but the whaling ship that inspired the story of Moby Dick, which was fascinating. 

Fr. Patrick: (Laughing) But you can’t remember anything about it but it really changed your life. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: These were almost a year ago. I’m going back a little bit. It was fascinating. Then I wrote a book on the Mayflower in the first three generations of the Pilgrim set came over, which was also great. And then I was on a kick of some sort of like, I really like the Tudor period in history and like poster, like Mary Queen of Scots, I think is like fascinating at that point of time, Elizabeth I, Pius X, these people are all living at the same time, but some early English history. So like I’m reading a book right now on John I and the first and his reign and the lead up to Magna Carta, which is just like this bit, the intrigue. It’s cool. I really enjoy it. So that’s what I’ve been reading, but I do have to admit it’s been slow going. I usually read before bed, and…

Fr. Patrick: Five to 10 pages? 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: It’s been really, so last like year I’ve gotten through maybe like eight books, which is not a lot, usually I plow through… 

Fr. Patrick: No, I’m the same insofar as I’ve been reading at night, although there there have there have been a few books that I’ve binged, one that I’m kind of working through interview by interview and we had we had them on the podcast the author of this book, Fran Meier. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: (Laughing) Oh now who can’t remember? Oh, okay. 

Fr. Patrick: Excuse me. Yeah, Mr. I was pausing to collect myself. We had the author of True Confessions, Fran Meier on the podcast. So I’ve been reading through all of those interviews. And they’re really, really amazing. You know, and I read various parts of it and read in it. And they’re just really powerful to sit with. So that’s kind of a contemporary book about life in the American Church. I’ve been reading history, Dave McCullough, so his book on the pioneers. I read a few histories of Israel after the war began. I became very curious about the history of the Holy City, because I don’t actually know that much about the… especially the modern history of Israel. So I dove into a few books about that. But one book we both read that we thought worth talking about on the pod is A Gentleman in Moscow

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah. 

Fr. Patrick: And the author of Amor Towles. So Father Jacob-Bertrand, why don’t you tell us, give us a summary if listeners don’t know the book, what A Gentleman in Moscow was about.  

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah. So I know he’s written more, but he’s also written what else. Amor Towles has written, A Gentlemen in Moscow, which we’re gonna talk about, and which I think is by far and away the best. A newer one, Lincoln Highway, which I have to admit, I did not get through. Have you read it? 

Fr. Patrick: No, I haven’t read it. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Okay, so I started, it’s one of these books where the chapters go between two characters and I think eventually, you know, you’re bouncing back and forth and then eventually it’s woven together. I never got to the woven together. I just couldn’t get into it for some reason. And then Rules of Civility, which is kind of his first bigger novel. But I must have read Rules of Civility, but I don’t remember. But A Gentleman in Moscow, I think it was like four or five years ago I read it. For the first time, I think I’ve read it twice. And I remember having it with me I was actually traveling to make pilgrimage in France with friends and I had started it but then wasn’t able to finish it and then like picked it up again and like the time when I had had it in my hand both times everywhere like sitting on the plane or in the airport every time I had it out someone’s like, “…isn’t that so good?” Like you know, it was like people were always commenting on it. And it really is an excellent novel. I loved it. I thought it was great. 

Fr. Patrick: It’s still funny to hear you say that, ’cause I read it for the same reason. It seemed to be a book that everyone was talking about. And I saw it everywhere. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: And in the house, like a lot of people are reading it in the background. 

Fr. Patrick: It got passed around in the community. Yeah. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: So the basic premise of the book is that the main character, he is a count, or prince, a Russian prince, it takes place in Moscow. And it’s during the sort of communist overthrow of the like kind of elite, right? So instead of, because of his connections, rather than being rather than being killed by this sort of communist regime, he is given a life sentence of sort of like house arrest or exile in this hotel in Moscow. And he’s told, you’re told right in the beginning in the first couple of pages that like, should he step foot out of the hotel he’ll be shot? And that’s kind of it. So like he’s left to live his life out in this hotel. And it’s his grand hotel with different restaurants and saloons and bars. And you get to know this whole cast of people working in there. And you start to get to get a sense of who is actually like pro the count and against like, you know, like what side of the political aisle people settle on. And he develops this sort of family within, within this hotel. And it has like silly things, like it’s kind of a comedy of, not of errors, but there’s like, it’s laced with comedy throughout like a kind of ironic comedy. So like every evening, his routine is the same. Like he goes to have a drink and then at one place in the hotel and then he goes to have dinner ever, but like the menu’s presented as like this, like he’s this new guest coming. You know, it’s like the the errors are still kept up at the beginning. And then there’s, well we’re gonna talk about it, right? So we’ll talk about it. There’s this girl who’s essentially like dropped off. Yeah, dropped off at the hotel. And the rest of the story after it’s set up is kind of this interplay between this girl who’s like quasi adopted by this count and like taking care of, right? And how their relationship plays out and how the rest of the story kind of plays out. So yeah, there’s this sense of ironic humor, the sense of like tragedy of this guy being trapped here, you know, all of that and it kind of comes to bear on their lives.

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, it’s delightful. I like, so in 1922, that’s the year that he has sentenced, the reason that he has spared is because he’s written a poem which was deemed to demonstrate some sensitivities that he wasn’t entirely against the revolution. So in the poem, he is said to have some pro-revolutionary sentiments. And I find that so charming that a gentleman is spared because of the peace of poetry that he’s written. And it ends up a little bit of the kind of playfulness of the absurdity that you’re referencing. I thought the poem was just a great example of that. One thing that I really like about those, it used the word errors, but about some of the customs of the hotel is, and this is one of the reasons why the book I think captured so many people’s attention today is because the count is fabulously polite. He’s a fabulously polite person. And he really is living up to what he was trained to be in his social class. And of course, the crisis is that everything that he’s known and loved has dissipated. And as the novel goes on, there’s a near suicide attempt that becomes very important in the plot and because it becomes so difficult for him to face all of this. But to the extent that he is faithful to those formalities, to those structures of life and that help him understand his own identity, the count succeeds in keeping away despair. Which I think is fantastic, right? So one of the great themes of the book, you know, we’ve been doing a little bit of plot summary and throwing out some things that we liked about it here, but one of the great themes of the book is not allowing oneself to be dominated by his circumstances. And I certainly think we see that with the count. So in addition to this kind of poly tests and Victorian manners and the way that the count presents himself, I love this meta theme, which is that even though your circumstances aren’t what you will, you still have control over your life. And we see that with the count, right? That the man still has a choice how to conduct himself regardless of his circumstances. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah, that’s certainly at the heart of it. And it certainly challenged throughout in his interactions with the different characters in his sort of just daily routine of what he does and where he goes in the hotel and how he functions and how these relationships develop. And also as the book progresses, like the management of the hotel has changed from people who would typically serve clientele like the count, to the revolutionaries are now, so so they there’s there’s this whole thing with like the wine cellar I don’t know if you remember that yes there’s like this hotel has this amazing wine cellar but it’s all the all the labels are taken off the wine is that right and some of them destroyed so that like because like none of it meant it’s just wine that’s what it but like this is like it destroys this beautiful collection of wine that would have been drank on different days and with different meals and stuff. And when the revolutionaries come in to take over the hotel, it’s just everything’s the same. It doesn’t matter. And this is like a destructive kind of reality. And like you said earlier, there’s like an absurdity to it in a sense of like who cares, right? But there’s also the reality of like this, when like so much of life’s circumstances are beyond this man’s control, but like how does he react to them? Does it destroy him or does it not destroy him? 

Fr. Patrick: His great quote, his great quote, which speaks to this is he says, if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them. Which I love. I just wanted to throw that out as you were as you were going off on circumstances. If a man does not master his circumstances, he’s bound to be mastered by them. And the wine is such a big deal because it plays off again the count’s whole life. So for example, the Rostov family, Count Rostov, the Rostov family has this tradition right on the anniversary of the family member’s death that they all get together and they open a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You know, a particular wine and the particular line has a certain role because it’s part of the commemoration. And when that’s leveled and when everything becomes the same, we find the aspects of life being worn away and everything becoming stale or beige, to use the Bishop Baron word, where everything just becomes the same, and there’s no uniqueness or flavor to excite or bring you in. What do you think, Father Jacob-Bertrand, what do you think the novel has to say about community? Because you’ve referred to a few of the characters that account meets and ways that he different the ways that he finds community. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah, I think in like in inter-existing to this next point. Um, they’re like it’s still something that I want to or word that I wanted to use that I didn’t yet, but I will and it moves off also to like the community dynamic is this idea of tradition. 

Fr. Patrick: Oh, yes. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Like to these traditions. And we’ve talked about it. We don’t need to reiterate. But I like thinking about the two kind of juxtaposed realities of tradition and then being like– well, I’ll say this. I think that tradition frees us from what you cautioned against. Tradition frees us from being dominated by our circumstances. Because tradition and participating things that are within tradition or custom. And that sort of mindset, we’re entering into something that’s bigger than us, right? You know, I hear this is kind of silly, but maybe it’s not silly, but I think here of like Downton Abbey, for example, like why is it so important that these houses be maintained in these customs and these, well, because they like, they give life to something that is bigger than any one family that’s living in the house at one time. You know, we can think of two in our faith, like the Chair of St. Peter, you know, like the holy, the Holy Father and the position of the Holy Father and the Church is bigger than any one man, you know, kind of thing. It’s the tradition surrounding that. It invites us to participate and unify us in something that’s bigger and that we don’t create for ourselves, but we become formed by. And so too in these traditions that he’s keeping up, like the count doesn’t create these, but he’s been formed by them. And so many other people around him. So when those are lost, you almost begin to lose a sense of identity, which is kind of ironic in ways because it’s an identity that he’s not created for himself, but one and one in which he participates. And I think highlights the reality of who we are as human beings in our reality, to like especially to live with and under God. It’s that like, the fullness of who we are as men and women is actuated by our participation, not by our sort of self-determining creation. And you see that stifling that beige, whatever kind of take over when everybody is like, no, this is what I do. This is what I do. This is, I’m creating my own world. And it’s like, well, your world is boring. And it’s like predictable. And you know, so all this. And this comes to bear too in the relationships, right? That maintain a sense of tradition throughout because most of everyone who the count is now interacting with is staff, who he would have interacted with but in very limited ways before. But you see his interactions with like the seamstress and the mailman and like the front desk concierge and these sort of people you see the relationship grow from one of like servant class to like upper class to an actual relationship as like one as these traditions are maintained like as these customs of living are maintained but also as like the circumstances of life are formed such that he needs to begin to rely on these people and they begin to rely on him in different ways. So these relationships are, yeah, they develop throughout very quickly, but in ways that are genuine. 

Fr. Patrick: I like this point a lot that you’re making here where you’re arguing that tradition is what allows the relationships to be more than transactional. And the Marxist proletariat, you know, the Bolsheviks, they can only consider every relationship as transactional. But if you have a grounding in tradition, you can see a kind of richness and discover meaning in these relationships that’s very profound. In the novel, he says, this is such a great quote about tradition. In the novel, Calrostov says, “The principle here is that a new generation owes a measure of thanks to every member of the previous generation. Our elders planted fields in fought and wars. They advanced the arts and sciences and generally made sacrifices on our behalf. So by their efforts, however humble, they have earned a measure of our gratitude and respect.” And I love especially that last line, our gratitude and respect. The count refuses to forget the past and because of that is able to embrace it and hand it on, that’s part of what happens when he makes his friend Nina, his little comrade, Nina is of course a very young girl, listeners who haven’t read the book, maybe don’t know that, but Nina is very young. And Nina’s great role in the novels that she opens up the count’s view of the hotel and gives him access to places and spaces within it that he wouldn’t have himself encountered. So Nina’s again, Nina’s young. And she has acquired a master key, a pass key to the hotel. And she can lead the county basically anywhere through the hotel. And she does, and she leads him to explore places that otherwise he wouldn’t have gone. So it’s not that he’s not changing. He’s not constricted by his love of tradition. We do see him evolve, and his horizons are broadened like in these interactions with Nina and exploring the different places in the hotel. But all of that exists within the tradition and the framework and the way of life that he’s established for himself so that he’s not mastered by his circumstances in the hotel. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think that as we’re introduced, not introduced, but as we get to know the count more and more, in a sense, as he gets to know himself, more and more and like broaden these things. Because I don’t want to, I don’t think we should think that someone who clings to tradition, or even that has a negative connotation, but that appeals to tradition is incapable of change or growth as a human being. That’s not what we want to say. And it’s not what happens here. And Towles does a good job of showing how that’s the case. The count is not, it’s challenging for him to be led around by a girl. And he begins, he loves this girl. I mean not in a romantic way, but like as a fatherly figure to her and that sort of and how that changes his life and and broadens who he is and yeah, it gives new form to who he is so yeah, that’s certainly true. 

Fr. Patrick: But, so the novelist not in case we’ve made some in case we’ve given some listeners concerns in the novel that you know it doesn’t read like Emily Post’s Rules for Etiquette. This isn’t a this isn’t a sort of you’re not being beaten over the head instance by instance by how polite the count is although it’s very striking. I was very moved by that and it jumped off the page of me and how polite he is because our age is so rude. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah. Well, I think the title just gives it away. Right.

Fr. Patrick: And so that he is actually, yeah, exactly that he is a gentleman. But, but it’s not to say that he is without a struggle, right? And one of the things that the count struggles with is meaning in this new age, you know, because despite the fact that he’s remaining in this hotel, he knows that the world around him is changing and the world around him is changing and the world around him is changing very quickly. So I wondered,. Fr. Jacob-Bertrand, if you had thoughts from the novel on this universal question about the search for meaning and how the count navigates it or some of the things that he encounters. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah, I think in one sense, it’s like the lesson being taught is kind of an obvious one. And how the story arc goes, right? So you have this count who has this life and we’re not told at ton like there. He talks about his past, you know, his family and his past life. But the story is not about his past, the story and it’s not like a flashback story kind of thing. It’s about what’s happening now. But you see as you, as the story goes, is that like everything’s taken away, and there is a real loss of meaning in his life. He struggles with that very much, and we know that. But ultimately where there is meaning to be found is amongst an in-relationship with the people in the hotel, particularly with Nina, which changes everything in the end. So yeah, I think that’s a pretty obvious what, like, indicator, pointer to where it is that meaning is found, but also it is where, but also how it is that meaning is revealed, right? That it’s not just that we are not the definers of our meaning, like in a vacuum, that it’s in relationship with others, that that gives like light and life to our lives. And we see that this might be, this might be a sort of like isegesis reading into it far too much, but like we see this alive, I think the theme that we see alive in the beginning of Genesis is what we see here. In the sense that God creates and God creates man and He recognizes as God as it were, recognizes that Adam needs a helper, a fit helper for him to be with. And it’s only in the creation of Eve that Adam receives his identity, that it’s in relationship with others that we receive our identity or meaning or purpose. And this becomes very clear. And this is, I think, is the catalyst for that change in that growth and the count that you’re talking about too. It’s as he begins to live more and more regularly and deeply with the people in the who are working in the hotel with Nina, with all of that, that he begins to understand himself and really what he’s about. 

Fr. Patrick: So as I was thinking about this, what I came up with is I think the count finds me, I don’t disagree with you at all. And I add to this, I think that the count finds meaning in the ways that every human being does, in part through resilience. So part of the joy of how polite he is, is that he never casts that aside. And he’s very attentive to the sort of faults that he makes or the lapses that he has. And he has a kind of fragile conscience and these lapses that come back to him. We won’t leave these things aside if he’s made a mistake. And I think that there’s a kind of resiliency behind his manners. He’s determined to keep up his way of life as best he can, regardless of the circumstances that he’s under. There’s something about that that is essential to meaning being insistent on continuing on and holding fast and saying strong, even when all these things are against you, the world as you know it is fading away. But not giving up on what you know to be true or good. Okay, so I found that, I thought that to be very profound. This idea of resilience at play here. And that I think too, I don’t think it’s overstated to say that the count is redeemed. You know, when we say, where is meaning, what do we need for meaning? We need redemption. And we see that right away when the novel opens, because the count isn’t in fact condemned to die. So right away he’s saved and he’s given the kind of grace of the grace of a lighter sentence. But then while he’s in the, as we’ve been arguing, while he’s in the hotel, his life does change and he changes and his interactions with his staff at the hotel grow and change. And at the end of the novel not to give anything away because I hope listeners read it. The account does a couple very heroic things which are really striking and they would be very surprising. They come as a great surprise in fact based on what you learn about his character in the opening pages. And those actions, particularly at the end of the novel, I think, are redemptive. And they kind of manifest very broadly, very visibly that the interior change that he’s been undergoing. 

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: Yeah, and two things about that first, that point about redemption, it’s always a question for me, like redemption for what. And that’s answered at the end of the story. Like you could read the first and last chapters and kind of write what’s in between because when you know like the end of something, what something is for, like you can kind of track out in a general way like how it gets there. Now, the particulars might not be yours to like, define, asTowles does through the story. But, yeah, redemption, but for something, for these heroic things. And again, without giving away the ending, ’cause I do think you should read the book, it’s great. It’s funny, it’s a light read in a way, but it’s also beautiful and profound. That what happens in the end is not foreign to the count. It’s not as if he’s a different person. He’s just the fullness and the sort of completion of what a gentleman ought to do. And not in the sense of blind tradition, not in the sense of rebellious, but in the sense of goodness. And you can see how he’s primed for this throughout his life and how his time in the hotel shapes him and is the final sort of like catalyst for him to act as the way he does in the way he does. It reminds me of like grace and how we talk about grace, grace is not natural and it’s not unnatural. It’s con-natural. There’s a supernatural reality to grace we’re made for it, but we can’t get it on our own and it’s not it doesn’t do damage to us but it fulfills and that’s kind of how the end of like the novel reads to me It’s like this is different, but it’s not foreign in that sort of way. 

Fr. Patrick: You know the novel includes these great lines which I think the summer I saw well what we’ve been saying, “He has said that our lives are steered by uncertainties many of which are disruptive or even daunting, but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of lucidity, a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of the life we had been meant to live all along.”

Fr. Jacob-Bertrand: That’s awesome. 

Fr. Patrick: Brings it all home. So friends, we hope that you enjoyed this episode on Amor Towles, but really about A Gentleman in Moscow, and the novel of his that we’ve so enjoyed. If you enjoyed Godsplaining, we’d ask that you consider to make a monthly donation to us on Patreon. Follow us on Facebook, the social media platform X, Instagram. Like, subscribe, leave a 5 star review. We love reading the reviews and sharing the reviews. So please leave a review of the show of this episode, especially if you like this episode. Drop in your thoughts about A Gentleman in Moscow, we’d love to hear them. Otherwise, please check out for our upcoming events and to shop Godsplaining merch. Please know that we are praying for you and we ask that you pray for us. God bless.