Bailey's Prize, books, Reading, Women Writers

Vesna Goldsworthy’s “Gorsky”

“He was far too bright to be this wealthy, and far too wealthy to be happy.”

CdBN5ukXIAAJhCT.jpg-largeThe farther I get into this project, the more I realize that the most painstaking (and painful) reviews are for works that disappoint. Just as I can often trick myself into exposing my subconscious wishes when I feel yourself rooting for a particular outcome of the coin toss, so, I am coming to learn, I can swiftly unveil my feelings about a book by how NOT swiftly I labor over its review. And with that…

Vesna Goldsworthy’s debut novel “Gorsky” is Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, recast in modern London among the immigrant-millionaire class. Goldsworthy, a writer from Serbia now living in the United Kingdom, recreates the classic American story through the eyes and experiences of eastern European immigrants – Russians, Serbians, and Bulgarians – fighting for a place in cosmopolitan London.

Just as in “Gatsby”, “Gorsky” is often an expose, a look at the emptiness of excess. The nouveau riche – their joyless extravagance and sometimes amoral dalliances – are occasionally scorned, but more often pitied. Gorsky’s Nick is a Serbian immigrant working as a bookseller in a fashionable part of London. Just like Gatsby’s Nick, our narrator comes in increasing contact with the ranks of the elite, but he is always, it seems, on his back foot.

“[W]henever I entered Gorsky’s world I lost my bearings, as though money created its own decompression chambers in which even the laws of gravity ceased to apply.”

While Goldsworthy’s jibes at the unhappy wealthy are well-constructed and certainly faithful to the original story, her insights into the world of immigrants are where her story stands on its own. Though Nick is often uneasy around his wealthy new friends, his connection to them as fellow Slavs may be the source of his loyalty. Nick may seem a complacent expatriate, but he is no fool; he sees the imbalance between the physical and the emotional in society, and he is well aware of the xenophobia and fear that cast a pall over so many contemporary communities.

“The British are squeamish about death, but they have no problem with sickness, so long as we are talking about the body rather than the soul. The body can bend to the will of the soul. You might be born male but become a woman, you can tattoo and pierce your skin, change the colour of your hair and the shape of your teeth and your nose, you can enlarge or reduce your breasts, adjust your outward appearance to whatever you want it to be. The only thing you are not allowed to be is unhappy, particularly if you are an immigrant. Unhappiness is a form of ingratitude, an abuse of hospitality.”

Though Vesna Goldsworthy clearly has a way with word, her writing crisp but appealing, in the end Gorsky was soon read and soon forgotten. Classics can be remade with great success. Stories from the past are often reflected and alluded to by modern writers, and plot lines or minor characters can be developed from a fresh perspective and to an unexpected end. With Gorsky, however, Goldsworthy seems to have crossed the line from homage and inspiration. The affect is unsubtle in a way that was disappointing and underwhelming.

It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery and that there are only, at heart, a finite number of stories in the universe, to be reframed and decorated to the illusion of individuation. It is also said that a copy is never as sharp as the original.

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