Reviewed by Paul Fishman
Gorsky is an enigmatic, much-gossiped-about billionaire who is rarely seen at his own famously gorgeous parties; there is a suggestion of some enormous unresolved romance in his life; his public character has something staged, unusually deliberate, theatrical about it—you could say that his personality is “an unbroken series of successful gestures”, if you wanted to quote from The Great Gatsby. And you probably do want to quote from The Great Gatsby; I did from the blurb onwards. There was me thinking I was being quite clever in drawing the parallel, and then on page 14 I read:
‘There was something so obvious in his slightly taciturn appearance that, almost from day one, I called him the ‘The Great Gorsky’…
That from the narrator, called Nick, just like Gatsby’s narrator. Except that this Nick is short for Nikola, because he is a Serbian immigrant living in London, part of the post-communist Eastern European diaspora, while Gorsky is, of course, Russian.
The notion of a contemporary, Anglo-Russian, London-based Gatsby seems almost obvious in retrospect, but that’s because it works so well, and much of this comes from the artistry and ingenuity with which it is realised. Getting it horribly wrong would be easy; it’s not difficult to imagine Gatsby themes updated and rehashed in a trite, over-obvious way. If it has a sort of easy naturalness about it in Gorsky, it’s because Goldsworthy is good, very good.
Just how close is Gorsky to Gatsby? Well, it’s very close, and yet Gorsky is the most original new novel I’ve read in a good while. If you’re familiar with Gatsby, you’ll anticipate things and aspects of the plot will be familiar, but that’s not to say you won’t be surprised. What you do know and can anticipate makes for a subtler but stronger tension, for dramatic irony, and for a sense of doom. I’m usually a little nonplussed when comparisons to Greek tragedy are made, it can be a bit of a stretcher at the best of times, and lazy and/or pretentious, but … well, here there’s a direct parallel. Tragic audiences knew the mythic plots of the plays they were watching, the novelty was in the treatment and variation, and knowing what was to come could add a sense of inevitability and a sort of vicarious anxiety; so it is here. You could also argue that Gatsby has a mythic quality.
Another pleasure of the book is its shrewdness; about the British, about immigration, about money and the rich. Through the narrator you observe people, things, events with sardonic detachment, good natured, not amoral, but largely uninvolved even when taking part. It’s a perspective that’s not of UKIP and the Daily Mail, nor of the Guardian and Islington; it’s a human rather than an ideological perspective, clear-eyed but not wholly unemotional. In a satisfying twist, you could say that Nick is nostalgic for an older Britain and for British history, despite being not only foreign but sceptical. I found it very appealing.
This is a clever book by a very clever writer: as with Joseph Conrad, English is only Goldsworthy’s third language; she’s Serbian, like Nick. But it’s not the cleverness that’s so enjoyable and impressive, it’s the story and the characters and the writing—exciting, funny, interesting and moving all at the same time, and all without seeming effortful or self-consciously ‘smart’. It’s very easy to read and enjoy. I recommend it.
Note: the best new non-fiction work I’ve read this year reverses the Russians-in-London line, it’s by a Londoner in Russia—Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber). It’s superb. Perhaps this’ll be the year of Anglo-Russian books. With a nod to Serbia.
Vesna Goldsworthy, Gorsky (Chatto & Windus: London, 2015). 9781784740092, 277 pp., hardback.