The narrator discusses some of the advantages of invisibility, and how many stories have centered on heroes having this power. But fewer tales have been told about invisibility as a curse. The narrator states that Anna cast just such a curse on the Count after their date in 1923. In the weeks that follow, the Count notices that he seems to be disappearing from view of other guests or going unnoticed by staff members. One day the Count crosses the lobby and it takes a full minute for Vasily to notice him at the concierge desk.
The Count’s downward spiral into erasure continues. His imprisonment, coupled with a lack of purpose, has seemingly rendered him invisible to other people. He no longer holds sway as a guest and a member of the nobility, but he has also not yet adapted to the changes in his life and taken up a job in the hotel, becoming a peer to the staff.
The Count asks Vasily where Nina is. He responds that she is in the card room, and the Count goes to seek her out. He finds her sitting at the card table and attempts to get her to go on a new adventure with him, to no avail. She is singularly focused on a math project: making a list of all prime numbers.
Even the Count’s new preoccupation with going on adventures with Nina fails him, as she is growing up and has other priorities like school. Unlike Nina, the Count’s life, has no real progress to make in its current state.
The Count begins to help Nina, looking over her list. He points out that 1,173 is not a prime number because its digits add to a number divisible by three, and therefore it is divisible by three. She is astounded by this simple trick and goes over her completed papers.
The Count still takes the time to help Nina with her problem, demonstrating that he is still a good friend to her, and a kind of fatherly figure providing wisdom to help her with her schoolwork.
The Count leaves Nina to her work and decides to read the paper before his dinner with Mishka, but he is surprised by the repetitiveness of the newspaper. He thinks to himself that the Bolsheviks dwell on the same subject matter every day, with such a narrow set of views and the same vocabulary that he feels he has read it all before. He suddenly realizes that he has read it all before, because it is yesterday’s paper.
The Count critiques the unyielding single-mindedness of the Bolsheviks before realizing that he is reading yesterday’s paper. The Count is literally stuck in the past, where without new experiences he is doomed to repeat the same activities over and over again.
The Count tosses the paper aside and looks at the clock, seeing that Mishka is now fifteen minutes late for dinner. Unlike the Count, Mishka has been busy after the 1923 RAPP congress, as was commissioned to edit and annotate an anthology of Russian short stories. Additionally, Mishka’s interest in Katerina has blossomed into a full romance.
Both Mishka’s business and his romance are once again held up in contrast to the Count, who has neither romance nor a busy life to attend to. Though he watches events happen around him, he does very little to change or be a part of them.
Arkady passes the Count in the lobby before realizing that he has a message for the Count from Mishka: Katerina is under the weather, and thus Mishka will be returning to St. Petersburg early and will not be joining his friend for dinner. The Count tries to mask his disappointment, but realizes that Arkady has already turned his attention to another guest.
The Count’s invisibility continues due to his stagnation, as Arkady does not notice him at the beginning of their interaction, and quickly moves away from him when he has finished relaying Mishka’s message.
The Count goes to the Boyarsky alone and finds he must wait a few minutes for his table. The USSR has recently been recognized by Germany, England, and Italy, and so the Metropol is becoming busier and busier with foreign guests. The Count notices a man with a pointed beard march down the hallway with purpose, and Andrey signals for a waiter to seat him immediately.
Having firmly established the Soviet Union, and now being recognized by some of the larger governments in Europe, the Bolsheviks in turn adapt to their newfound recognition by opening the country’s doors to foreigners.
The Count asks Andrey if the man with the beard is that same Commissar who had been in a fistfight in the Boyarsky with a Belarusian man a few days prior. Andrey realizes quickly that the table towards which the waiter is heading with the Commissar is next to a table where the Belarusian man is sitting. Andrey redirects them and thanks the Count for his tact and quick thinking.
The Count’s quick thinking with the Commissar and the Belarusian man not only prefigures the story of his proficiency with seating arrangements, but also foreshadows his eventual ability to adapt that proficiency when he takes a waitering job in the Boyarsky.
The narrator explains that the Count has been a master of seating tables since he was fifteen. He used to help his grandmother plan her dinner arrangements, where considerations of various family feuds and eccentricities were essential. The Count had labored over these seating puzzles, telling Helena that if Paris had not been seated next to Helen, the Trojan War would never have happened. But the Count also thinks to himself that now the old Russian aristocrats have wound up just like Hector and Achilles.
The anecdote about the Count’s seating skill represents another detail that Towles introduces early and will later become important—especially at the climactic dinner of the novel, where the Count is able to report on the seating arrangement and interpret who will become the next head of government after Stalin.
After waiting a few minutes, the Count sits at his table and selects the osso buco (a cut of meat) for the evening. He is shocked, however, at the appearance of his waiter—the Bishop, who has been promoted from the Piazza to the Boyarsky. The Bishop seems to understand the Count’s dismay, but the Count tries to be gracious. The Bishop asks how the Count wants his osso buco, which the Count finds to be a ridiculous question, considering it is a dish of stewed meat. Additionally, though the Count orders a very specific wine, the Bishop continues to ask him whether he will be having red or white.
To the Count, the promotion of the Bishop to the Boyarsky represents the decline of some of the values that once belonged to the aristocracy. The Count identifies the Bishop as an ignorant, thoughtless Bolshevik with neither a sense of etiquette nor the ability to anticipate and interpret the needs of a customer. This perception of the Bishop is exacerbated by what the Count believes to be idiotic questions, given the context.
When the Count tries to specify that his wine selection is a red wine, the Bishop explains that there are only two wine options: red or white. The Count summons Andrey and asks how the Bishop came to work at the Boyarsky. Andrey explains that he was promoted by Mr. Halecki, likely due to the fact that he has a friend with some influence.
It is ironic that the Bishop has been promoted to the Boyarsky due to a relationship with a high-ranking party member, because the ideals of the party are meant to treat everyone equally—perhaps implying that while the Bishop espouses some Bolshevik ideals, he is mostly just self-interested.
When the Count tries to explain his trouble with ordering wine, Andrey brings the Count down to the wine cellar. Andrey shows him that the labels have been removed from every bottle in the cellar. Andrey explains that a complaint was filed with the Commissar of Food, explaining that the wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. Thus, the Boyarsky will serve only red and white with a single price in order to equalize the wines.
The removal of the wine labels (particularly when it’s revealed that it was the Bishop’s decision) serves as one example of the Bolsheviks trying to eradicate the vestiges of the aristocracy for purely symbolic—and in this case petty and spiteful—reasons.
The Count asks who filed the complaint, and Andrey states that it may have originated with the Bishop. The Count remembers the incident at Christmas when he had corrected the Bishop’s wine recommendation, realizing that this action may have been taken in revenge. When Andrey turns to go back to the Boyarsky, the Count observes that each bottle is unique—an “ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself.” The Count grows depressed, realizing that like the wines, he has been cast into anonymity; that his traditions have become a relic of the past.
The Count here views the wine as a symbol of individuality, and that like the wine, he is slowly losing his own identity. This incident hits him hard particularly because this political symbol also deals him a personal slight: he had prided himself on knowing the nuances of individual wines, and he had learned how to pair wines with various meals as a part of his upbringing.
The narrator explains that usually it takes generations for traditions to fade, and so individuals rarely feel that their entire way of life is obsolete. But political turmoil can cause an abrupt evolution, and the Count is struck by the realization that the Bolsheviks will not rest until every vestige of his way of life has been “uprooted, shattered, or erased.”
The points the narrator makes here also echo the story that the Count tells later about the moths of Manchester, whose evolution was abruptly changed with the invention of factories. At this point in the story, however, the Count does not feel as though he will be able to adapt to the changes occurring around him.
Just as the Count turns to leave, he takes one more moment to search among the bottles. He systematically scans the shelves until he comes to a stop. He selects a bottle among the thousands, holding it up and smiling at the two crossed keys embossed on the glass: the insignia of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which his family would use to toast late relatives. The Count decides that on June 22nd, 1926—the tenth anniversary of his sister Helena’s death—he will drink to her, and then kill himself.
Even though the Count decides to commit suicide as a result of this incident, it is notable that Towles gives a glimmer of hope for individuality and identity. The fact that the Châteauneuf-du-Pape is still recognizable because of the engraving on its bottle foreshadows the fact that the Count will also retain his sense of self, even though the society around him is bent on destroying his way of life.