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,, 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.


    • 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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