The Master of Petersburg

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Born in Cape Town into an Afrikaans-speaking family, J. M. Coetzee would eventually become one of the leading English-language authors of South Africa. As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in 1969, Coetzee submitted a doctoral dissertation titled “The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis.” He was fascinated by how and why Beckett negotiated a transition from English to French as the medium of his fiction and by the way language itself becomes an issue in much of Beckett’s work. In his first six books of fiction, usually set in South Africa or in an unspecified landscape that could be African, Coetzee focuses on isolated characters for whom language is not so much a medium as a riddle and a muddle. With his latest novel, however, Coetzee moves to nineteenth century Russia and to an actual historical figure, the author Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. The Russian master has replaced Beckett as Coetzee’s tutelary muse.

Though he has lived in Germany, Coetzee’s Dostoevsky is not adept at code-switching. He grieves in Russian for the death of his stepson Pavel Alexandrovich Isaev, and he ponders the adequacies of any language to assert mastery over the mysteries of life and death. “If he were more confident of his French,” Dostoevsky, sexually aroused by his dead son’s landlady, assures himself, “he would channel this disturbing excitement into a book of the kind one cannot publish in Russia.” Yet Dostoevsky is not confident enough, and he does not commit translingualism. Instead, he begins to write again in his native Russian, and Coetzee confronts the challenge of mustering up the Russian master’s words in English, of using the template of his own chosen tongue to suggest what might have been thought 125 years earlier through the Slavic language. The novel’s protagonist uses Russian in order to resuscitate his dead stepson Pavel, and Coetzee uses English in order to conceive a life beyond his own. If, as a wit once quipped, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) is “the finest French novel in the English language,” Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is in effect a nineteenth century Slavic book written in twentieth century English, a rival to Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1911) as the finest Russian novel in the English language. Or rather it is the fictional prolegomenon to a novel already written in Russian—Dostoevsky’s Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913). Coetzee imagines the circumstances leading to the genesis of the Russian master’s work.

The Master of Petersburg begins in October, 1869, as Dostoevsky arrives in the Russian capital after extended residence abroad. Summoned back by news that Pavel, age twenty-two, 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 his dead stepson, 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. Dostoevsky discovers the extent of the filial resentment that Pavel, who was seven years old when the author married his mother, felt toward him, especially after that mother died and his stepfather took a young new bride. He also begins to penetrate the febrile underworld of student radicals into which Pavel had been drawn.

In scenes reminiscent of his own Prestuplenie i nakazanie (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), Dostoevsky is interrogated by P. P. Maximov, a wily judicial investigator who insists that Pavel was murdered by his coconspirators in the violent revolutionary movement. Maximov attempts to induce Dostoevsky to help track them down. Sergei Gennadevich Nechaev, the charismatic young leader of a clandestine group called the People’s Vengeance, tries to convince Dostoevsky, who himself spent a decade in Siberia for political crimes, that Pavel was murdered by the police and to recruit the author for service in insurgency. He scolds Dostoevsky for having abandoned youthful ideals to the complacency of middle age. The rebel berates the novelist, who is five years younger than Coetzee, for having become a hack—“an old, blinkered horse going round and round in a circle, rolling out the same old story day after day.” Nechaev affects the rhetoric of radical egalitarianism, insisting that...

(The entire section is 1848 words.)