In his novel The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee moves away from the violence and excoriating politics of South Africa to draw loosely on a tragic event in the turbulent life of the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Coetzee makes Dostoevsky his own character by imagining his grief over the death of his stepson, Pavel. Coetzee portrays Dostoevsky as a haunted man, lost and unstable, hallucinatory and irritable. He suffers epileptic fits of guilt-stricken bereavement, believing he contributed to the boy’s death because he did not play a larger role in his life. A torn and lachrymose man, Coetzee’s Dostoevsky battles shame and despair. He cannot reconcile his failures against any of his successes. In his time of anguish over Pavel, his motives and actions can be questioned while at the same time understood as he finds himself crumbling with lust and desire for the woman his stepson rented a room from. He struggles with mood swings, and he goes from kindness to cruelty and elation to depression, as he tries to convince himself he’s mourning when what he’s doing is exploiting the sympathy others have for him. More than a character study, Coetzee also expertly captures the feverish Russian mood prior to the revolutionary period. He explores the demonizing effects of the radical ideologies, which are portrayed as infectious diseases that feast on the minds of the younger generation, possessing them with spells of madness capable of murder. The book’s setting drives home the extremism of the possessed during a tumultuous era in Russian history. Reflective of nearly all of Coetzee’s novels, The Master of Petersburg is full of philosophical ideas woven seamlessly into the flow of the narrative. This is a fascinating portrait of a great writer pushed to the limits of sanity and insecurity as an aggrieved father.
Set in 1869, this is the story of Dostoevsky returning to Petersburg from his self-imposed exile in Dresden upon the death (murder? suicide?) of his stepson who had become involved with the anarchist Nechaev. Dostoevsky stays in his son's apartment, wears his clothes, and develops relationships with his friends and acquaintances. The novel becomes a mediation on a writer's powers, responsibilities and what he must sacrifice to write. It is a dark and grim novel written in the style of Dostoevsky. Once again, there is too much of Coetzee displaying his cleverness.
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