Vesna Goldsworthy on re-imagining The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina
Inspired by literary classics, Vesna Goldsworthy's novels engage with life in London through the lens of Eastern European and Russian characters. Her latest novel, Monsieur Ka, is an ingenious follow-up to Tolstoy's masterpiece Anna Karenina, focusing on the life of Anna's son, whom she was forced to abandon for her lover, Vronsky. Set in post-war London, it's an entertaining and affecting story about identity and exile, language and literature.
Goldsworthy's previous novel, Gorsky, recasts F. Scott Fitzgerald's title character in The Great Gatsby as a 21st-century Russian oligarch — a billionaire arms dealer — set amidst the global decadent wealth of London.
Vesna Goldsworthy was born in Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, in 1961. She moved to England in 1986 and spent a decade working at the BBC World Service. Her books — including award-winning poetry and her bestselling memoir, Chernobyl Strawberries — have been translated into more than 20 languages.
Goldsworthy spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London.
Divining the fate of the Karenins
"As a lover of Russian literature, something that I was always passionate about was trying to imagine what happened to any number of characters after the Russian Revolution. I actually did that with all of Tolstoy's characters, trying to imagine which of them were the opportunists doing very well out of the new Communist regime and which of them would actually have died or lost their lives in the Gulag.
"Sergei Karenin's story is the thread that takes us through. He escapes from Russia down through the Crimea, as many did, via Istanbul and then back north to Paris and eventually to London, through many hardships. What actually happens is that it is his wife who saves the situation on any number of occasions, particularly in Istanbul where, because she's a painter, she sells her paintings. Because I studied the destinies of Russian exiles, I took almost the average set of stories and created the path across Europe which many of the Russian exiles took. The part of London where this is set, Bedford Park, was actually and continues to this day to be a part of London where a lot of Russians and their descendants live. There is a Russian church. There's a Russian old people's home. I did a lot of both the big European history study and the study of the local history of London when I devised the destiny of the Karenins."
Hidden in suburban London
"On one level, exile [for Sergei] seems very comfortable because he lives in a pleasing suburban home full of books and paintings and he seems to be doing relatively well. His son is an accountant. His daughter-in-law is a former secretary. It's a very solid suburban life. There's no deprivation there, other than the deprivation that the population in general is going through in 1947. This is the time of rationing, shortages. The fuel is scarce, etc. But you have to remember that he comes from an incredibly wealthy family, from the world of St. Petersburg palaces. If you do look back, his life is one of downward mobility. But I deliberately didn't want to make it a tragic story. It's a kind of story of London's suburbs that you never know lurks behind the ordinariness of its facades."
A study in exile
"As an immigrant myself, I followed the destiny of the children of first generation immigrants. Very often they respond by wanting to become, in this case, as English as it is possible to be... Through almost every character, [the novel] is a study of different modes of being in exile. Do you make yourself blend in and disappear or do you emphasize your identity? Do you leave your identity? I know with the Serbian community in London that some people become almost more Serbian in exile than they would have been back in the old country. With the Karenins, I sort of examined that. They have this ambivalent attitude towards Russia because of the way communism has changed it. There is a moment when they all go together to a cinema in London and in one of those newsreels that used to be shown before the main feature, they see the marching Soviet soldiers. Both the Father and son have this moment of ambivalence because these are communist soldiers marching in the red square and yet they are recognizable Russian faces — faces of their people."
Vesna Goldsworthy's comments have been edited for length and clarity.