Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"This Is Not a Parable": Transformations of the Prodigal Son in Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Coetzee

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"This Is Not a Parable": Transformations of the Prodigal Son in Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Coetzee

Article excerpt

Early in the morning on 28 January, 1881, Dostoevsky woke his wife and told her of his clear conviction that he would die that day. He had been coughing blood for two days and had had several haemorrhages; now, opening the Bible at random to the third chapter of Matthew, he read Christ's admonition to John the Baptist: "Do not restrain me, for so it is fitting that we fulfil all righteousness." "You hear," Dostoevsky said to Anna Grigoryevna, "do not restrain me, this means I am going to die." (1) He was right: that evening, as the end approached, Dostoevsky called his son and daughter to his side and asked Anna to read the Parable of the Prodigal Son to them. (2) It was of course a story that had fascinated the writer for many years.

Dostoevsky's lifelong writerly interest in the Parable marks one of the most important and extensive returns to Christ's story in the history of the novel, but it is of course only part of a greater novelistic engagement with parabolic narrative in the modern period. In what follows, I wish to consider some attempts to rewrite the Parable within a tradition of modern Russian literature, from the unnamed author of the seventeenth-century Tale of Misery and III Fortune leading up to the Dostoevsky of The Karamazov Brothers (1879-80). (3) These reinterpretations are fascinating in their own right, but they also serve as a backdrop to the most prominent fictional envisioning of Dostoevsky's creative process and the final work that this essay addresses: J. M. Coetzee's own extended engagement with the prodigal motif in The Master of Petersburg (1994). (4) Dostoevsky, or an imagined Dostoevsky, is thus at the heart of this essay in multiple senses.

As the inclusion of a South African (now Australian) novelist makes clear, these texts are not only selected with attention to national tradition. Nor is this essay primarily a survey of authorial reinterpretation and re-reading--though of course Dostoevsky drew on Turgenev, and Coetzee's text is, among other things, a reimagining of works by both authors. (5) Rather, I wish to consider how the Parable's persistence in the modern era and specifically into the non-Christian or even post-Christian context of Coetzee's writing might impact, albeit obliquely, on a larger narrative about the novel's development and the emergence of modern culture, and how that culture understands novelistic meaning.

The narrative I have in mind is a familiar one; it was first told by Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel though it was sustained and broadened by his many inheritors including Michael McKeon, Franco Moretti, and Jack Goody. In this account, the novel's genesis and eventual cultural predominance are inseparable from the rise of secularism and more specifically what Vincent Pecora has forcefully critiqued as the "secularization narrative": the argument, Weberian in tenor, that the demise of religious thought was as inevitable and irreversible as the progress of modernization itself. As Pecora points out, it is now the contention of Martha Nussbaum and Lynn Hunt that Watt's narrative of secular root and novelistic branch might effectively be inverted: modern secular society, they suggest, is itself largely the product of the novel (4).

From Watt onward, readings of the novel that evolved in tandem with the view of a triumphant secularism naturally read the form as allied with secular history itself. Defoe's narrative revolution was the "total subordination of plot to the pattern of the autobiographical memoir" (privileging this narrative over, say, an emphasis on spiritual autobiography, as in accounts of Defoe by J. Paul Hunter and George Starr) (Watt 15; my emphasis). The "modern sense of time" (24) on which the novel's truth is based, in other words--that of the "individual apprehension of reality" articulated in the philosophy of, for example, Descartes and Locke--replaces the "a-historical vision" governing older narrative forms (epic, allegory, romance): "the classical world's view of reality as subsisting in timeless universals" (23). …

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