She was half an hour late. She took me aback by coming on foot, breathless and apologetic, her coat over her arm, wearing a shirt of golden silk over a pair of green velvet trousers, as though she had had some advance idea of the colour scheme of the space that had been so carefully prepared for her. Under a coiffed chignon, several locks of golden hair were escaping studiedly towards the vertebrae of her long neck….
Daisy’s school was housed in a large Gothic villa on the south side of Hyde Park. Although it looked like a place dreamed up by J. K. Rowling, it was clear – in spite of Natalia’s promise of a ‘bunch of English school kids’ – that its pupils were the offspring of international billionaires; perhaps means-tested scholarships were on offer to the children of mere multi-millionaires. Its theatre may have looked like a scaled-down version of the English National Opera, but the audience was anything but English. There were Indians, Arabs, Chinese, Americans, Germans, and even a few Russian women. On seeing Gorsky, who studiedly remained closer to me than to Natalia, they immediately stopped talking to each other and tried to secure seats nearer us. The air was thick with expensive scents and all the women present were dressed in ostentatious and very un-English ways. Their fur coats, shiny handbags, high heels and multiple rings with huge stones made Natalia’s silk shirt and velvet trousers seem modest, and her chignon positively understated.
commentary: What a strange idea: Gorsky is a rewrite of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (one of my favourite books of all time) – the action has been moved to a world of rich Russians in London in the 21st century. I was doubtful when I heard of this, but actually I loved this book, I thought it was a clever, funny and thoughtful reworking of the story, with a lot to say about people, and about life in London. It shouldn’t work: but it does. Anyone who is familiar with Gatsby can play the game of spotting the clever parallels, but if you come to the book from nowhere I think you could still enjoy it.
Gorsky has a dream-like atmosphere, as the main characters waft around Chelsea, with the odd strange sortie into more earthy parts of London, and visits to people who live in terraced houses. The narrator, Nick (of course) works in a fancy but old-fashioned bookshop, has no money, and is not part of the Russian expat world. But he shares a Slav heritage, and helps the eponymous Gorsky – a true oligarch – to create a book collection that will lure in Natalia from her palace across the road from his own…
Goldsworthy has many funny and actute observations about modern life:
There was no amount of money that could keep things as quiet for anyone in London as successfully as having no money at all. There must be whole squares in the few still unfashionable parts of the East End that have seen no building work in two decades, not even a lick of paint. But everywhere around here the drilling, the digging and the movements of men, machinery and materials were never-ending.Nick goes on holiday to a Greek island apparently owned by Gorsky and finds in his room:
a collection of goods one might need on a Greek island if one was a high-class rent boy who liked to travel extremely light: toiletries, suntan lotion, two pairs of swimming trunks… flip-flops, a pair of white espadrilles, a slim camera and a pair of wraparound sunglasses.But Goldsworthy also goes all out to try to make us understand the love story within:
And I was indescribably, immeasurably jealous. Not of the idea, which now seemed certain, that he might soon have this woman for ever, not of the building nor of the money he possessed, but of his capacity to feel.And later:
The longer I knew her, the less I understood her power to bewitch men, although – it seemed – only the man who married her somehow managed to escape her spell. For Summerscale, she was not the great prize that Roman Gorsky dreamed her to be. She was not even enough.There are plenty of connections to other literature in the book (as Goldsworthy rather crassly points out in an afterword) and particularly with Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a great favourite of several of the characters.
A group goes to see the opera of Onegin at Covent Garden – recognizably a production I saw (and loved) myself: and the connections between Pushkin and Fitzgerald, and Onegin and Gatsby, are carefully threaded through.
It seems outrageous to re-write the perfect masterpiece of Gatsby, but this book completely won me over.
The top picture is from a reality show/documentary about Russians in London. In some parts of central London, you can see plenty of wealthy Russian residents and visitors, and they are just as the stereotype suggests. You can’t challenge those particular clichés.