The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
J.M. Coetzee's "The Master of Petersburg" is an astonishing book. The South African author writes about an episode of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's life in St. Petersburg, and manages to produce a novel which, while being recognizably Coetzeean, feels quite Russian with its dark, tortured, spiritual themes, and which aptly conveys the melancholy of the Slavic soul. Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" and three novels by Coetzee ("Disgrace", "Waiting for the Barbarians", and "Boyhood") are among the best books I have ever read, so the combination would seem to be irresistible. Alas, I have somewhat mixed feelings, and it is definitely not one of my favorite Coetzee's works (this is his tenth book that I have read).
It is October 1869. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's stepson, Pavel, commits suicide in St. Petersburg, and the writer returns to Russia from his home in Dresden to visit Pavel's grave and retrieve his papers from the police. Shaken to the core with grief, he spends days in the room Pavel was renting, touching the things that Pavel touched. He befriends the landlady and her daughter and soon learns about the connection Pavel had with Nechayev, a young anarchist and revolutionary (an authentic figure from the Russian history), who is wanted by the police.
I do not find the whole Nechayev's thread interesting, although it is indeed very Dostoyevskyan, particularly the tense conversations. The gentle interrogation scenes are reminiscent of "Crime and Punishment". To me, the most powerful messages of the novel are about a father who discovers that his son is not what he has thought he is, and about the father-versus-son generational conflict.
Most of us, luckily, do not have to grieve the loss of a child. Mr. Coetzee's son died in an accident five years before the novel was published, which casts a different light on the book. The changing stages of grief become the primary topic: Dostoyevsky's utter despair from the beginning of the novel evolves into something quite different at the end. Despite an involving plot, I feel that this is also a book about writing, where a writer writes about another writer's writing.
In "The Master of Petersburg" I miss the crystalline clarity of writing so characteristic of most other novels by Mr. Coetzee and I perceive a general lack of focus. I prefer to have both Dostoyevsky and Coetzee speaking in their own voices.
Three and a quarter stars.
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