J. M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg

The Master of PetersburgThe Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This 1994 novel about Dostoevsky makes me wonder why Coetzee attempted such a thing: he well knows Dostoevsky is larger than he is. There is a quality in Dostoevsky that is beyond Coetzee—call it “high spirits.” Coetzee is Ivan, to the letter, but Dostoevsky had Dmitri, Fyodor, and Smerdyakov in him too. So I might have preferred this novel not to be about Dostoevsky. Coetzee went somewhere sufficiently unpleasant, though, that he had to borrow the garb of a seasoned traveler. His novels of the ’80s, for all that the Marxists carped about them, were within the mandate of the Enlightenment. This book, though, begins the journey into hell which will be consummated in Disgrace. No wonder it has an Orphic motif.

The purpose of this novel is to answer a question about how the writer does what the writer does and why. This is Coetzee’s imagined story of how Dostoevsky came to create the novel Demons out of the experience of traveling to Petersburg to collect the effects of his dead stepson. It is about learning to empathize with nihilism, child molestation, demonic possession—learning to empathize with those who desire to do you in. It is about learning that these things outside the self could just as well be in it.

At first I thought Coetzee evaded the difficulty of his subject matter by toning down Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. It is alluded to a few times, but mostly avoided. Sure, I thought, don’t forfeit the liberal reader’s good feeling by making your hero too much of a bigot. But then I saw something more subtle going on (it’s usually dangerous to underestimate Coetzee): the novel slowly reveals that Dostoevsky’s most characteristic activities are those for which he most blames Jews and Catholics, that his prejudices are projective—that he and not “the Jews” does everything for money, that he and not “the Jesuits” justifies his illegitimate actions with tortuous abstraction.

The whole novel is this movement—the revelation (to the writer and of the writer) that writing is nothing other than the capacity to become other—and not in the nice way of those who promote empathy, but in the terrifying way, to use the novel’s epileptic figuration, of leaving behind all humanity to fall through the darkness.



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