The Master of Petersburg Essay - Critical Essays

J. M. Coetzee

The Master of Petersburg

With THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG, his seventh book of fiction, South African author J. M. Coetzee focuses on a few anguished weeks in the life of a major nineteenth century novelist. Summoned back to Russia by news that Pavel is dead, the forty-nine-year-old Dostoevsky, wracked by grief and guilt, is determined to learn the cause. As if to conjure up the spirit of the dead man, he moves into Pavel’s room, dons his clothing, and pores over his diary. He becomes sexually involved with Pavel’s landlady, Anna Sergeyevna Kolenkina, and attempts to learn from her young daughter, Matryona, exactly how his stepson died, and lived.

In scenes reminiscent of his own CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1866), Dostoevsky is interrogated by P. P. Maximov, a judicial investigator who insists that Pavel was murdered by fellow revolutionaries. Maximov attempts to induce Dostoevsky to help track them down. Their charismatic young leader, Sergei Gennadevich Nechaev, tries to convince Dostoevsky that Pavel was murdered by the police and to recruit the author for service in insurgency.

Beset by the forces of both repression and rebellion and tormented by unresolved antagonisms with Pavel, Dostoevsky reads fragments of fiction that his stepson left behind. Asserting his mastery, he begins writing his own fiction. It appropriates the dead man’s imagination and elements from their father-son discord, as well as from Dostoevsky’s relationships with Anna Sergeyevna, Maximov, and Nechaev. In his own assertion of literary mastery, Coetzee has conjured up the genesis to Dostoevsky’s novel THE POSSESSED (1871-1872). THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG vies with Joseph Conrad’s UNDER WESTERN EYES (1911) as the finest Russian novel in the English language.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. November 27, 1994, XIV, p. 3.

Library Journal. CXIX, September 1, 1994, p. 213.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 20, 1994, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. VII, February 25, 1994, p. 41.

The New York Review of Books. XLI, November 17, 1994, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, November 20, 1994, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, September 5, 1994, p. 88.

The Spectator. CCLXXII, February 26, 1994, p. 31.

Time. CXLIV, November 28, 1994, p. 87.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 4, 1994, p. 19.