It’s a bold enterprise to take a novel as renowned and loved as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and recast it in modern day London with Russian and Balkan characters. This is what Vesna Goldsworthy has done with her novel “Gorsky” but this isn’t merely an intellectual exercise. Rather, it’s a clever way of taking Fitzgerald’s critique of a certain milieu of 1920s American society based around decadence, social change and wild aspirations and overlaying it upon modern English society to see what close parallels can be made. Goldsworthy uses the same arrangement of characters to create a fated love story played out amidst the most outrageous excesses of capitalism. In doing so she creates an engaging and fascinating view of London today.
Nikolai or “Nick” works in a dilapidated bookstore in Chelsea, an affluent London neighbourhood that he’s nicknamed ‘Chelski’ because of the influx of millionaire foreigners buying up property within the area. As a well-educated immigrant outsider whose home and family were obliterated by war, he’s found a calm reclusive existence for himself in London where he spends his days reading and catering to the few customers who happen into the shop. But one day he becomes infatuated with a beautiful Russian woman named Natalia Summerscale who shows a keen interest in obscure art books. Delivering her literature to her, he ingratiates himself into Natalia’s affluent home and becomes acquainted with her rich husband Tom. At the same time, he finds cheap rent in a tiny cottage adjoining a Chelsea property that is undergoing a massive overhaul by the mysterious Russian oligarch Roman Gorsky. In the same way that Gatsby uses his supreme wealth to orchestrate ways to capture the heart of Daisy, Gorsky seeks to win Natalia after a lifetime of obsessing over her.
Nikolai observes the love triangle of Natalia, Gorsky and Tom play out to its inevitable fateful end. He is charged by Gorsky to curate a library of the rarest literature in the world for his elaborately-conceived new home/museum. It's like a bookish person's dream job! Subsequently, he's also swept into a world of excessive parties, privately-owned Greek isles and bad-acting high society. But he’s never fooled into thinking that this inconceivably wealthy arena holds the key to happiness. He observes “Everything around me… was harmoniously orchestrated, beautiful to look at, yet the cumulative effect was melancholy, as though some unquenchable thirst lurked at the heart of it all.” Indeed, most everyone he meets seems secretly prone to desperation and loneliness. Even among the upper-classes, a former gold medallist named Gery remarks how “It’s a cruel city. People do all sorts to survive. They deal, they steal. If they are men. If they are women, the sell their bodies.” Later Nikolai remarks that “I had never thought money shielded you from anything.” Gorsky is the most withdrawn and melancholy of them all because for all his billions and however much he’s desired by everyone he meets, he doesn’t have the love of his life.
One of the best things about this novel is its comic and warmly-satirical physical descriptions of London. Winter is described as “months of slushy semifreddo” and a “dirty duvet of cloud covers the city.” Goldsworthy is also excellent at conveying the social layers of the city with its various ethnic neighbourhoods and how these have changed over time. She observes that “just behind the Serbian church, one of the many indistinguishable Victorian terraces that housed Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s, then the Spanish and Portuguese labourers from what were then impoverished Iberian dictatorships, and finally a wave of North Africans escaping Maghrebian politics and the grimness of French satellite towns.” It’s a dynamic portrait of how London is a city that experiences influxes of immigrants escaping particular political and social troubles. But she’s also careful to show the pitfalls and how “There is a cruel freedom about this city, the freedom of an entire world on the make.”
I was cautious about approaching this novel when Simon of Savidge Reads told me about its connection to Fitzgerald. As much as “Gatsby” is lauded as an American classic, it’s not one of my favourite books. However, there is something so vibrant and playful about “Gorsky” which makes this novel very readable. It's an original and compelling story in its own right. It shows how whether you come to London with no opportunities or every opportunity, fulfilment can never be reached through money alone.