Monsieur Ka

Written by Vesna Goldsworthy
Review by Douglas Kemp

London in the bitterly cold post-war winter of 1947. Albert & Albertine Whitelaw are a recently married couple. Albert was an officer in the British Army during the War, and Albertine a Jewish woman who had to leave France under the existential Nazi threat. They met in a hospital in Alexandria, Egypt, where Albert was recovering from being wounded and to where Albertine had fled via a peripatetic route to evade the German menace. The story is narrated by Albertine in the first person – with no living relatives, she is trying to adapt to her new life in an austere war-ravaged London. Albert works for the government in post-war diplomatic reconstruction, and Albertine, looking for a role, finds work as a companion to an ageing member of the Russian nobility – Sergei Carr, or Karenin. The name may be familiar to the reader, and indeed, it turns out that Sergei Carr (or Ka) is the son of Anna Karenina, the infamous adulterer of Tolstoy’s novel. Vesna Goldsworthy uses the fictional device of making the Karenina-Vronsky story an actual event, which had been fictionalised by the writer Tolstoy. As Albertine gets to know the eponymous Monsieur Ka, his story as a Russian émigré is revealed and she starts to write down his colourful life history.

The author has a good literary eye for the poetic observation of life and events. Her account of the alienating problems that Albertine suffers following her unexpected survival from the war, and the new life that they both share in Earls Court, is admirable. I felt that Sergei Karenin’s piecemeal account of his varied and privileged life did not work quite as well, and that the voice that the author, via Albertine, tries to capture, was not always fully true. Nevertheless, this is an admirable and fully engaging novel.