Monsieur Ka by Vesna Goldsworthy
Back in 2016 I really enjoyed reading Vesna Goldsworthy’s first novel, Gorsky, which updated The Great Gatsby to contemporary Chelsea, aka Chelski due to the influx of Russians. Gatsby became Gorsky and Nick became Nikola – a Serbian bookseller. It was brilliantly done, delivering the doomed romance with great wit to create a surprisingly funny novel.
For her next book, she’s taken on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but rather than update Tolstoy, she’s imagined that the Karenins were real, and tells the story of the next generations of the family. The novel is prefaced by an epigraph taken from Tolstoy’s letters:
My God, if only someone could finish Anna Karenina for me! It’s unbearable.
So that is what Goldsworthy has effectively done. The novel begins with her take on Tolstoy’s (in)famous opening line from AK:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” Tolstoy
Why do marriages end?
A better question may be: why do they ever begin? Goldsworthy
It’s 1947, and a bitterly cold winter in London. We meet Albert and Albertine, Albie and Ber to each other. Albie is English, a former army officer, who now toils for long hours in Whitehall doing work he can’t talk about, leaving his French wife Albertine at a loose end in their cold Earls Court flat. They met during the war in Alexandria, where Albie was recovering from a shrapnel wound, and Ber had evacuated to from Bucharest where she had been teaching at a lycée. These locations couldn’t help but remind me of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War series (which I must re-read one day), as Earls Court recalls Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square.
Ber is out getting her daily copy of Le Monde, when she spots an advertisement in the newsagent’s window, ‘offering light secretarial work to a lady fluent in French, two afternoons a week’ in Chiswick. She phones, and is invited to meet Alexei Carr, Alex who, although slightly formal in his manner, tells her about his late French mother and elderly Russian father who is recovering from a stroke. Alex thought hiring someone to keep up his father’s French would be a good distraction for him. Albertine is invited to meet Sergei the next day, and Albie is delighted for her.
White Russians, he surmised … Britain was frequently the last stage of a long journey. They had fled Russia after 1917, but they often arrived here after escaping Berlin, Paris or Prague, as recently as during the past decade, now doubly exiled and doubly impoverished. There were many in West London.
Sergei and Albertine hit it off immediately, and she starts her employment by reading Madame Bovary to him in French. Soon, he asks Albertine if she’d like to accompany him on an excursion, ‘They are making a film about my mother.’
Here, real life intrudes into the novel briefly in the form of Alexander Korda’s 1948 film of Anna Karenina, starring Vivien Leigh. As Sergei tells her more and more about his family, the Karenins (anglicised to Carr), his mother Anna, and how Tolstoy based his novel on her life (not true of course), Albertine is fascinated, and she starts writing up Sergei’s history in the evenings in English, aiming to give it to him as a present. She also takes Russian lessons. But all is not happy at home, Ber and Albie are drifting apart. He’s always at work, and she is increasingly absorbed by the Carrs. Something will snap soon…
Goldsworthy’s elegant and light touch is again evident in this novel, but apart from the film scenes, it is a more serious affair than Gorsky. As she did with Gorsky, Goldsworthy. who is Serbian but has lived in England since the mid 1980s, effortlessly captures London life from an immigrant’s point of view. The main quartet of characters, Albertine and Albie, Alexei and Sergei are fully drawn and you can’t help sympathising with each in turn when they take the spotlight. Like Emma Bovary, Albertine misses romance as she found in her days in Egypt, but she is not a reckless woman. She is displaced though, like the Carrs, and it’s not difficult to see how her bond with them strengthens over that with her mostly absent husband.
Monsieur Ka is innovative in its development from the Russian classic, it’s elegantly written, poetic and sad, but a splendid read. (9.5/10)
Source: Own copy in hardback.
Vesna Goldsworthy, Monsieur Ka (Chatto & Windus, 2018), now in Vintage paperback, 288 pages.BUY at Amazon below (affiliate link)