Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

Such darkness in Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, ostensibly the tale of a haunted, fictionalised Dostoevsky returning to nineteenth century St Petersburg to mourn and collect the papers of a dead stepson, who has apparently become the political tool of local nihilists.

Although Coetzee’s Russian backdrop is superficially different from his earlier works, his theme of a tortured protagonist that must humble himself to learn to love, against an undercurrent of violence and death, is familiar territory. The tension in The Master of Petersburg is created from a confrontation of moralities and questions around authorship.

This Wikipedia post on the book suggests a confessional aspect to The Master of Petersburg, which I’ll investigate further when time permits. The intertextual relationship with Dostoevsky’s Demons is clear and fascinating. I love when a writer of Coetzee’s ability continues a literary conversation started a century earlier.

2 thoughts on “Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

  1. Hi Anthony,

    According to this Telegraph review of the Kannemeyer biography, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9914820/The-Childhood-of-Jesus-by-J-M-Coetzee-and-A-Life-in-Writing-by-J-C-Kannemeyer-review.html, J.M.’s son Nicholas died in 1989 when he fell from the 11th floor of a block of flats; in The Master of Petersburg (1994), Dostoevsky’s step-son Pavel dies when he falls from a tower. I can imagine that this must have been the only way that J.M. could have written about — or indeed made any kind of sense of — such pain.

    jen

    • Thanks, Jen, for that clarification. I didn’t know that Coetzee had that tragedy in his life. How awful. It adds a whole other dimension to this book. Ironically Pavel outlived Dostoevsky, so his death is a fictional stand-in.

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