THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG
By J.M. Coetzee
250 pages, Viking, $21.95
`THE MASTER of Petersburg," J.M. Coetzee's seventh novel,
arrived in St. Louis ahead of its November publication date thanks
to Coetzee's participation in "The Writer and Religion" conference,
held in late October at Washington University.
Despite his willingness to discuss other other texts at length,
the author confided only that "The Master of Petersburg" took three
years to write and that he took "liberties" with history.
Opening in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1869, "The Master of
Petersburg" offers a bird's-eye view of the famed city from the
skewed perspectives of its celebrated, not entirely trustworthy
main character, Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, author of "Crime and
Like the start of a chess game, the first half of the book
methodically defines the players and their starting positions on
the board. Dostoyevsky has traveled from Dresden, Germany to St.
Petersburg to investigate his stepson Pavel Isaev's death. With
each encounter and clue, he inches closer to his stated goal of
"seeing" Pavel again. Coetzee's vivid sketches of bleak,
impoverished neighborhoods, animated conversations and "the
master's" thoughts plumb psychological and spiritual dimensions.
As personal and political events escalate, Dostoyevsky
confronts Pavel's supposed friend, Nachaev the dissident. Each
tries to disabuse the other of delusions about how Pavel died. They
vie for Pavel's soul. At one point, Nachaev accosts his elder,
saying, "No! You think you see but you don't! Seeing is not just a
matter of the eyes, it is a matter of correct understanding. .
.Forces: that is what you are blind to!"
Furthermore, Nachaev points to the "the master's" hatred of his
own father, a petty tyrant, adding, "Revolution is the end of
everything old, including fathers and sons." Their dialogues recall
age-old clashes, such as those between biblical fathers and sons.
Dostoyevsky has an affair with Anna, his stepson's landlady,
during his separation from his wife, also named Anna. The two Annas
facilitate the author's search for truth. They exemplify Coetzee's
use of doubling to compare and contrast. In this case, the women
are both intuitive, yet his wife in Dresden is Pavel's age (Pavel's
mother had died), and the landlady is closer to "the master's" age.
The landlady's daughter, Matryona, a friend of Pavel, is the female
equivalent of his son. Dostoyevksy further complicates his
relationships by fantasizing about his conflicting impulses to
protect Matryona and to initiate her sexually . …