Vasily and the Count are chatting about how much Sofia has grown, and the Count thinks that her growth from thirteen to seventeen occurred in the blink of an eye. He also thinks about how he had presumed that she would be a dark-haired version of Nina when she grew up, but in fact she is very different in demeanor. Where her mother had been impatient with the world and assertive, Sofia is demure and views the world as well-intentioned.
Now twelve years into fatherhood, the Count (like other members of the hotel staff) thinks about Sofia as truly a daughter, even speaking like a typical father in remarking how much she has grown (something that he also did with Nina’s change in interests).
The Count also thinks about the paradox that in adulthood, one experiences time so quickly that many years pass in a blur, often with few memories. But in childhood and early adulthood, every experience becomes indelibly imprinted in one’s mind. The Count posits it as a way of balancing the world’s aggregate experience of time: adults forget a period of life so that children might be able to remember it.
The structure that Towles has built in the novel, particularly in the first half, echoes the paradox the Count describes. The Count’s early adulthood is given great weight, and then his years of later adulthood and parenthood are skipped through until the narrative approaches his escape. This is perhaps also indicative of his attitude towards time as a result of his imprisonment; with all the time in the world, he remembers every detail, but with very little free time everything blurs together.
The Count then asks Vasily where Sofia is. Vasily says that she is in the ballroom with Viktor Stepanovich, the conductor of the orchestra at the Piazza. The Count, fearing that Stepanovich has some kind of ill-intention with his daughter, rushes to the ballroom and takes the man by the lapels.
The Count continues to exhibit a fatherly protectiveness for his daughter in assuming that Viktor was making trouble, and in threatening him physically.
Stepanovich says that there must be some mistake, and Sofia explains to the Count that Stepanovich is teaching her how to play the piano. She plays the Count a nocturne by Chopin. He is astonished by her skill but even more so by her musical expression, which conveys so much love and loss, even as a seventeen-year-old.
When the Count hears Sofia play, his astonishment is also an overwhelming parental pride, perhaps accompanied by the realization that Sofia has found a life of purpose, as he had hoped she would.
When Sofia finishes, the Count asks her why she didn’t tell him she was learning piano. She explains that she had wanted it to be a surprise for his birthday and is sorry if she upset him. He compliments her on her playing, telling her that only one in a hundred thousand piano students could bring the piece to life as she did.
Sofia’s desire to surprise her father on his birthday not only leads to her discovery of an innate talent, but also eventually provides the circumstances and the cover for her to escape Russia, and for the Count to escape the Metropol.
The Count asks Sofia how she conveys so much heartache in her playing; Sofia tells him that she thinks of Nina, and how her memories of her mother seem to be fading. The Count tells Sofia that he used to feel the same way about Helena. He goes on to explain how the ballroom was one of Nina’s favorite rooms, and how he would crawl on the balcony with her. He tells Sofia about her mother’s experiments, testing the principles of Newton and Galileo. They are quiet for a moment until Sofia kisses the Count on the cheek.
The heartache that Sofia conveys and her explanation of losing the memories of her mother is something that the Count also knows well, because he understands the feeling of losing members of one’s family. This is why the Count’s friendships become so important to him, and partly why the Count and Sofia become so important to each other, because they have both in a sense been adopted.
Sofia goes to meet a friend, and the Count goes to lunch in the Piazza. He notices a young man at a neighboring table sketching. When he enquires about the sketch, the young man says that he is sketching the interior of the restaurant. The Count looks at the drawing, which captures the restaurant perfectly. The man explains that he is an architect, but that there is little need for architects in Moscow at the moment (a footnote explains that aesthetic individuality in buildings has been eschewed in favor of efficiency and universality). Thus, he is drawing sketches of Moscow’s hotels so that he can draw them more elegantly than they actually appear.
The story of the architect begins an exploration of other individuals who have, like the Count, adapted their skills in order to survive in the new society. Because the architect can no longer design buildings, he uses his drawing skills to get a new job, much as the Count had to relinquish the etiquette that had been expected of him as a nobleman, but he still uses those skills in his job as headwaiter.
The Count explains that the restaurant has never been defined by its furnishing or architecture, but instead by its citizens. It is a gathering place for the city of Moscow. He explains that he has seen romances bloom, debates spark, and people of all kinds rub elbows. The architect observes that a room is the summation of all that has happened inside of it.
As someone who has spent nearly his whole adult life inside the Metropol and observing the goings-on there, the Count is aware of how small interactions combine to create the atmosphere of the restaurant, and of the hotel in general.
That evening, the Count gets a drink with Richard and explains how Sofia came to learn piano. She had taught herself to play a Mozart Variation and was practicing when Stepanovich heard her and asked her where she was studying. When she said that she was not studying with anyone, he immediately offered to take her on as a student. Richard and the Count toast to Sofia.
The Count continues to take on the qualities of an older parent figure, catching up with Richard but giving updates about Sofia instead of himself, and conveying his pride in her, showing how much she gives him a sense of meaning and purpose in his life.
Richard is now attached to the State Department in America and usually stays at the embassy, but he stops by the Metropol on occasion to get a drink with the Count. They drink to old friends, as they feel that they are kindred spirits even though they have known each other for only four years.
As with the friendships that the Count has made with the hotel staff, finding a new but true friendship with someone like Richard also gives him the sense that his life continues to be meaningful, and that there are new experiences still waiting for him despite his confinement.
Richard comments that he can’t believe it’s the conductor from the Piazza who is teaching Sofia, but the Count remarks that Stepanovich had actually studied at the Conservatory in Moscow. He only conducts to make ends meet. Audrius chimes in from behind the bar that one must make ends meet or “meet one’s end.” Audrius’s statement launches the Count into a story about the moths of Manchester, a story that his father enjoyed telling him as a child. But just as he starts to tell it, Richard gets a phone call from his wife, saying that he must come home.
This section serves as a large meditation by the Count on the idea of evolution and adaptation, and how, when the sociopolitical landscape changes, one must adapt one’s skills. Stepanovich is also an example of this: wanting to be a professional musician, but conducting at the Piazza in order to survive.
The narrator explains the moths of Manchester, an example of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As a boy, the Count had learned about evolution and it made sense to him, but he was surprised to hear his father say that natural selection did not always take hundreds of years.
The Count, who learned about this as a boy, has then learned to adapt in his own way: even though the aristocracy were wiped out, he still persisted and was able to adapt his own skills.
The Count’s father had pointed to the moths of Manchester, most of which for thousands of years had white wings and black flecking (though a few in each generation would have pitch black wings) The lighter coloring provided them with camouflage against the region’s trees. But when Manchester became crowded with factories, soot settled onto the barks of the trees. Suddenly, the moths that had pitch black wings were camouflaged much better, and within a hundred years, over 90% of the moths had black wings.
The moths of Manchester serve as a symbol for many of the characters in the book. As the conditions in Russia change, so do the characteristics of the people that have the best chance of surviving (for example, after the Revolution, the aristocracy were like the moths with white wings). The Count, in a way, is one of the lucky few white moths that did not die out, even though he as had to adjust to the world around him.
This lesson did not sit well with the Count at the time, but years later, he realizes he had been looking at the matter wrong. Though the color of the moth’s wings had changed, the moth species still persisted as a whole. The Count sees Stepanovich, and the man sketching, and even Mishka, as examples of these moths.
The Count heads upstairs for bed, and the narrator remarks that even while the Count is brushing his teeth, Viktor Stepanovich is setting aside an arrangement for Sofia. Mishka is sewing together pages for a book. The young architect is working on a drawing of a crowded restaurant. Under the restaurant’s floor is a mechanism of axles, cogs, and gears, and towering over the room through a glass ceiling is an older gentleman with his hand on a crank.
The narrator puts a final coda on this meditation about adaptation, illustrating how each person is doing that thing that “makes ends meet” but still allows them to find passion and purpose within their new venture. The drawing of the Count over the restaurant implies that the Count, too, is one of these moths, and also shows how crucial he has become to the life of the Metropol.