It’s surprising there haven’t been more novels drawing on London’s fascination with Russian oligarchs. But how to write about them without it all seeming a bit Jackie Collins? Vesna Goldsworthy has hit on the perfect solution with her witty novel Gorsky. If you’re going to write about being nouveau riche, why not model your book on the classiest thing ever written on the subject, The Great Gatsby?
Gorsky doesn’t advertise on the cover that this is a thinly veiled rewriting but it’s obvious from the first page (and explained at length in the acknowledgments). F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writer/narrator Nick Carraway becomes Nikola Kimovic, who grew up in poverty in Serbia and has ended up in London running an antiquarian bookshop. His Kensington neighbour? Roman Borisovich Gorsky — ‘The Great Gorsky’ — who just happens to be building a palatial residence next door to Nikola’s humble cottage.
The object of both their interest? The seemingly unattainable Natalia Summerscale, a beautiful, married Russian woman: ‘She made Grace Kelly look like a market trader.’
Goldsworthy’s Nik is just as ambiguous as Fitzgerald’s Nick and this provides a lot of the novel’s tension and interest. Nik is keen to analyse and emulate Gorsky. But is he getting so close that he’s being corrupted? Or is something of Gorsky’s zest for life rubbing off on him in a good way?
I worried when it veered off into ‘Fifty Shades of Oligarch’ with two sudden (and arguably unwarranted) c-words on page 123. But if the tone is uneven, this only creeps in very occasionally and doesn’t spoil what is effectively a great page-turner. There are some wonderfully observed bits about a certain layer of London life:
There were enough women in London who preferred to lead their intimate lives in short and uncomplicated bursts. It was possible to find sex on those terms whenever you wanted it, and without having to pay. And you didn’t even have to be particularly handsome.
Is it more than a tongue-in-cheek exercise in form? Possibly not. But I didn’t care. Goldsworthy is a writer whose company is reliably enjoyable. (Her memoir Chernobyl Strawberries is superb.) Born in Belgrade, and with English her third language, she has a relaxed insight into the Balkans and post-Soviet culture which few British novelists could hope to emulate. Gorsky is not the cardboard cut-out ‘Chelski’ type he could have been. But neither does he dispel a lot of the myths about New Russians. You’re left with one impression: that might just be because a lot of those myths are true. They’re even more Gatsby than Gatsby.