After many film versions, the superlative staged reading Gatz, and designation by the Modern Library as the best American novel of the 20th century, Gatsby has almost the status of a folk tale, like an American Cinderalla or Jack and the Beanstalk. So it had to be done sooner or later: Bring The Great Gatsby up to date and set it among today’s robber barons.
Indeed, it’s amazing that Vesna Goldsworthy’s excellent new novel Gorsky is the first full scale re-working of Gatsby. While writing this review, I came upon an inspired re-telling of Gatsby from the viewpoint of Fitzgerald’s villain, Tom Buchanan, by the editor Robert Atwan. This has received little notice, perhaps because it’s so short that it feels more like a reading of the book than a re-writing. But it meets the test of re-telling: It sheds light on unanalyzed material in the original, deepens our understanding of the characters, the plot, or the language, and is fun to read in its own right.
But Gorsky meets the even more daunting criterion of being worth reading even for someone who hasn’t read Gatsby. Goldsworthy’s polished, economical tale is set in one of the London neighborhoods where global kleptocrats live surrounded by bodyguards—in this case in Chelsea, near the river, just east of Cheyne Walk, roughly between Albert and Chelsea Bridges, where the author depicts (imaginary) public buildings transformed into palaces for billionaires. The posh-lust is updated too: Gorsky gives parties at the Serpentine Gallery and watches them streamed live to a screen in his car; Daisy, called Natalia, is passionate about Russian conceptualist art.
Luckily, Gorsky’s cover and subtitle—“A captivating tale of big money, Russian beauty, and good books”—are wildly misleading: Presumably, they’re aimed at women who like cozy novels about spinsters and bookstores. This book is not cozy; it’s a novel where the Jordan Baker equivalent is capable of scary “feats of internal gymnastics,” and more to the point, where important questions about the impact of vast wealth on society are raised and piercing remarks are made about money and the human heart.
Goldsworthy, a Serbian émigré, is a smart cookie, the author of a well-reviewed memoir, Chernobyl Strawberries, and an intriguing theory book about Balkan culture, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination. She also knows London. What she doesn’t do so well is dialogue, which is a pity, as Gatsby relies heavily on it. Said no one ever:
“The whole of London talks about his parties.”
“What a lovely town it was.”
“Do you possess a large art collection?”
If this is meant to evoke foreigners speaking English, it’s wrong-headed; these days non-native speakers talk very colloquially; it’s precisely this sort of literary, archaic English they never learned.
Gorsky is written in careful, polished English that reminds me of a certain genre of expensive restaurant where the food is prepared with obvious care and finesse, yet somehow isn’t delicious. But it’s not fair to harp on the fact that Goldsworthy isn’t Fitzgerald’s stylistic equal—how many novelists are? More importantly, and more interestingly, this clever re-telling underlines how delicately balanced a thing is Gatsby and sheds light on how the novel works.
Goldsworthy’s version sticks closely to the original plot but takes some liberties with the characters. Here Daisy and Tom Buchanan are called Natalia and Tom Summerscale, and they’re much blander and less complicated than Fitzgerald’s characters.
Daisy Buchanan is innocent and corrupt at once—just like America, in certain tellings. She’s passive-aggressive, manipulative, and suffocated by her social role, but she is also magnetic, magical, seductive, with a “thrilling” voice that held (remember?) “a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” She’s young enough to confess to Nick Carraway that she has “had a very bad time” and is “pretty cynical about everything.” But most of all, maybe—and no teenager who reads Gatsby in junior English class can see it—Daisy is narcissistic. Gatsby is also narcissistic. This will eventually lead to tragedy for all concerned.
As Gatz made me see, Gatsby is also a novel about the way driving—especially bad driving—reveals character. At the end of Gatsby, Jordan Baker reminds Nick, “You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver.” This makes me think of a valuable epigram: “Narcissism is always enacted at someone’s expense,” according to the psychoanalytic theorist Stuart Schneiderman. This is another way of looking at the same phenomenon Nick Carraway famously describes: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness.”
Goldsworthy’s Natalia is a Communist apparatchik’s daughter from Stalingrad, which is not quite in the same charm category as a Southern deb. Natalia isn’t seductive, she’s without forced gaiety or despair, she never opens up to the Nick character; she’s beautiful, austere, and inward—a tall, rich woman whose passion is conceptualist art. Making her tall seems an error; Daisy is small and vulnerable compared to what she calls her “hulking” husband. That’s part of why we root for her, even when it becomes increasingly clear that Daisy and Tom are “conspiring together,” as Fitzgerald puts it.
Tom Buchanan has a glamour of his own—he was a football star at Yale, “a national figure, in a way,” Fitzgerald tells us. But he’s also a big, scary, violent guy who drinks too much, with “a rather hard mouth” and “a cruel body.” Tom Summerscale isn’t intimidating, and he’s not as rich as Gorsky and not better placed socially, just the son of a diplomat, part of the great English upper-middle class.
In the original, the Buchanans are firmly upper class and arguably as rich as Gatsby. This matters, because it makes Gatsby that much more sympathetic, despite his own apparent great wealth. Tom Buchanan’s ranting about the Nordic “race” and his barely suppressed violence are frightening precisely because he has an unassailable place in society. (Tom Summerscale should be an English peer to represent the equivalent.) Fitzgerald has Tom break Myrtle’s nose early in the book to make this point; Goldsworthy has Natalie mention a much less extreme assault at the end of the book.
Here, the narrator Nick Carraway, Daisy’s second cousin once removed, becomes Nikola Kimovic, a Serbian émigré (like the author) with a doctorate in English literature. Nikola is outright infatuated with Natalia but worships her from afar, as he’s an underpaid bookshop employee whose only contact with her is selling her art books. He is also financially dependent on Gorsky, working directly for him to stock his home library with magnificent rare books for his collection. Snake-y socialite-golfer Jordan Baker becomes Gery, a former Olympic gymnast who is Natalia’s and Daisy’s personal trainer/paid companion, and Nikola’s “friend with benefits.”
You may remember that the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, and Nick Carraway are all social if not financial equals, part of what it was scarcely necessary then to call the “WASP establishment” to which Gatsby may be an outsider, either by ethnic or class origin. Goldsworthy makes Gery and Nick more like upper servants. Perhaps she is making a point about inequality, but it upsets the way the novel works.
Fitzgerald’s Nick is able to sit in judgment on Daisy, Tom, Jordan, and Jay—and Meyer Wolfsheim—from the standpoint of old line American money and morals, from a perspective of noblesse oblige and that of a patriot recently returned from the war. He’s not dependent on Gatsby in the least. And also, Nick isn’t a narcissist. He is willing to be disliked. Nikola shares this trait. But Nikola is just an emigrant with an interest in English literature; England isn’t his country, he doesn’t have a dog in this fight—and he takes Gorsky’s tainted money.
There’s one big omission in Gorsky, which has surprising heft, and I only realized it when I finished. There’s no equivalent of Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s mentor, the crude Jewish gangster modeled on the historical figure Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series.
Wolfsheim is an embarrassment to Fitzgerald fans because he’s a collection of ugly stereotypes, but the novel needs someone like him. Wolfsheim (with his “flat nose” and cufflinks made of human molars) is part of the reality principle in this very dream-work-like novel. He’s Fitzgerald’s grim reminder that no one becomes fabulously rich in a few years without yanking a few teeth. In the same way, Tom’s violence is a reminder that one of the uses of enormous wealth is the brutalization of others.
Quite apart from his fixation on Daisy Buchanan, the poignancy of Gatsby is that he’s a crook: a sensitive, poetic, thoughtful crook, but a crook nevertheless and, at the end, a liar about something much more important than whether he was an Oxford man. While Goldsworthy hints that Gorsky may be an arms dealer, there’s no corresponding mentor or sidekick figure like Wolfsheim to bring the reality home. Gorsky’s just an anguished, handsome, literary zillionaire who could have stepped out of a perfume ad or romance novel. Also, Gorsky is not a narcissist. He’s without Gatsby’s need to please, or his ability to seduce, which are linked to each other and also to the suggestion of Jewishness about him.
Although he’s overtly Jewish, Gorsky is in fact not very “Jewish” at all. On the other hand, he has a whiff of danger about him—Goldsworthy alludes to Russians who “hired killers,” and Gorsky is always surrounded by bodyguards. It may be—and Goldsworthy may feel—that Fitzgerald wanted to make Gatsby Jewish but didn’t dare, since most readers in the Twenties would have been repelled by him. I think she failed to see that the faint hint of being Jewish that clings to Gatsby is there to underline his vulnerability in contrast to Tom Buchanan’s cruel solidity. Goldsworthy felt safe in omitting Wolfsheim, I think, because she made Gorsky openly Jewish. But both choices change the novel in far-reaching ways, and not for the better.
When Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, high WASP America was having a panic about the infiltration of Jews. In the encyclopedia version: “By 1919, about 80 percent of the students at New York’s Hunter and City colleges were Jews, and 40 percent at Columbia. Jews at Harvard tripled to 21 percent of the freshman class in 1922 from about 7 percent in 1900.” In 1922, the year in which Gatsby is set, Harvard’s President Lowell proposed limiting Jews to 15 percent of the student body in order to prevent anti-Semitism.
Tom Buchanan’s diatribes in Gatsby about saving the “Nordic race” come out of this context. But it’s also astounding, on reflection, that Jews amounted to 21 percent of the students at Harvard so early in their mass experience in America. There was something going on.
But despite the ugly stereotypes Fitzgerald embodied in Wolfsheim, it’s the Buchanan money that’s capable of evil. (It’s the stuff of impossible coincidence that Wolfsheim’s business is called The Swastika Holding Company and that after George Wilson’s and Gatsby’s bodies are found, Nick comments, “the holocaust was complete.”)
Fitzgerald, as nearly everyone knows by now, wrote unabashedly for money and liked it plenty and early in his career made a lot of it. But he also was wary of plutocrats and a society founded on the worship of money. We are always conscious that Carraway/Fitzgerald have a dog in this fight. They are writing about their country, “somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
Not so in Gorsky. As I’ve noted above, Goldsworthy’s narrator is foreign-born. Nikola likes English traditions and English decency but if London becomes a refuge for stolen money and international criminals, it’s not his problem. (I could say something more about Nikola’s choices, but it would be a plot spoiler.) Goldsworthy or her character seems indifferent to the way that the Russian oligarchs are responsible for the wholesale looting and destruction of large countries, the blighting of the lives of tens of millions.
On the first page of Gatsby, Nick Carraway quotes his father telling him to
“remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments.
Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.
There’s an extraordinary amount to unpack in these few sentences and it will take the whole novel to do it. By the end, we understand that the “advantages” Nick’s father refers to aren’t material, and his snobbishness isn’t about money or class. This “infinite hope” is also revealed as a gift, one that is echoed in the description that follows of Gatsby as having “an extraordinary gift for hope.”(It’s worth recalling that hope is a Christian virtue, along with faith and charity.) By the end of Gatsby we understand that Tom and Daisy (and Jordan) received less of a sense of the “fundamental decencies” than did Gatsby or Nick; they don’t belong to the only aristocracy that matters, that of the spirit.
Gorsky doesn’t deliver Fitzgerald’s moral gravitas. But Goldsworthy does have moral insights worth the telling. One is so good Fitzgerald could have given it to Nick.
Quite near the end of the book, after Gorsky has been killed, Nikola says to himself, “I had never thought money shielded you from anything.” And this is an answer both to those who attack “inequality” and to those who defend capitalism. “Advantages” are not always what they seem.
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