[Extract from the book:]
I wore my best – my only – cocktail gown. Made by Tante Julie as a parting gift on the eve of my departure for Bucharest, it was a replica of a Schiaparelli frock, light
enough to survive the dislocations that gave it a new audience for each infrequent outing. The Mediterranean sun could compete with it, subdue it even. In London, it glowed like a thousand-watt light bulb, shockingly pink against austerity tweed. Then there was the magic locked in a dozen precise cuts. My aunt was a mistress of her trade. She knew how to tame the silk, to make it flow and follow the skin without ever sticking to it.
comments The novelist Amanda Craig has long been a good friend to this blog and to me – always supportive and interested and full of ideas and suggestions. She is a most generous critic and reviewer of books as well as a writer. Last month I finally met her IRL for the first time – and now am looking forward to her next book (out this summer) even more than before. (You can find Lie of the Land and A Vicious Circle on the blog).
She is always ready to recommend other writers, and I completely understand her annoyance that Vesna Goldsworthy isn’t better known. I read Goldsworthy’s Gorsky – a modern-day rewrite of The Great Gatsby but much better than that sounds – and you can see my rave review here.
Amanda suggested I must read Monsieur Ka, and how right she was. Although both books are very cosmopolitan, and have a constant air of connections with all kinds of European mysteries, they are both very solidly London books, in keeping with my blog theme over the past week. Both of them sketch the city with great certainty and a light touch.
But this book has so much more to offer as well. It is another extraordinary idea, like
Gorsky. This time there is the makings of a lovely straight novel set in London in 1947: Albertine – a Jewish refugee married to a British soldier - gets a job as companion to an elderly Russian gentleman. He is the Monsieur Carr/Ka of the title, but then – as it goes – it turns out he is the son of Anna Karenina, heroine of the Tolstoy book.
This mixture of fiction and meta-fiction is just laid carefully into the book like writing on icing. I didn’t have the slightest problem with it, though every so often I had to slow down (the book is very compelling) to think about comparisons and reality and references to Anna K, and to other literature (the name Albertine, for example… )
Meanwhile Albertine goes about her days, conjuring up the most perfect picture of her life, of London, of what it would be like to be a young war bride, of the dark winter nights:
It was just past four, yet the lights were already on in many of the houses. Stained glass threw pastel illuminations onto the snow-covered gardens outside. I heard dogs barking as I went by, saw curtains twitching.Monsieur Ka and his family become very important to her, and through them she has an entrée into a film being made of Anna Karenina. Her life is very uncertain, and so are her feelings. Goldsworthy creates a wholly real world, and combines a number of different strands absolutely superbly.
And, I stress again, does London so perfectly.
I sometimes walked all the way from Earl’s Court just to see the roses in bloom, to read their exotic names on black tags planted on stakes alongside the paths like little alien flowers. The streets of Paris, Bucharest and Alexandria were like sentences using the same grammar. They huddled inward against encroaching nature, whereas London opened up to it, allowed it to invade. London was a city created by people who didn’t like cities, I had concluded, who in their hearts preferred villages but with the convenience of urban life…
There were lawns in this square, benches and gravel paths under vast crowns of trees, nannies in beige uniforms pushing prams with huge, finely crafted wheels, office workers on the grass, taking their midday breaks, sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper in metal lunch boxes next to them, and young saleswomen, skirts pulled up high above the knee, sunning their legs in that eagerly joyful way only young Englishwomen do when the sun is out.And then, Goldsworthy flat-out makes you believe that Anna Karenina’s son could have lived in London in the 1940s.
‘I don’t complain. The Carrs are quiet people,’ he said, then, after a brief pause, ‘My mother and her lover produced enough excitement for the whole of the nineteenth century. And the twentieth.’I read a review of Monsieur Ka on Amazon, by Sue Kich, which said:
I frequently found myself – quite inexplicably - on the edge of tears. There is something fundamentally touching about the way this book is written, stitched through, as it is, with an underlying note of regret in its every word.And that summed up my feelings perfectly.
More London books last week – by Caroline Crampton and Linda Grant.
In the early days of the blog I used this picture for Anna Karenina, and one of my dearest friends told me firmly that she wasn’t nearly beautiful enough. I think she’s wrong.
And I also liked two John Singer Sargent pictures for her:
The pink silk dress at the top is an actual Schiaparelli, though slightly too late, 1950, from Kristine. It also isn’t a cocktail dress. But needs must, once I found it I had to use it. (There is some disagreement online as to whether this dress is actually Schiaparelli or Balenciaga: I am making the most of the uncertainty.) The woman clutching a pillar is in pre-war Schiaparelli.
The woman on a rooftop is wearing austerity fashion, what Albertine presumably wore on ordinary days. Photo from the ever-wonderful Imperial War Museum collection.
The other important Schiaparelli dress in post-War London is, of course, the borrowed-and-lent dress in Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means – see my blogpost and version here.