Known Answers and Unknown Questions: J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

September 30, 2010 | 6 books mentioned 2 4 min read

covercoverWhy did J.M. Coetzee write The Master of Petersburg?

I mean this as an existential question; the purpose of the novel itself is unusually explicit: not content to be merely “Dostoevskian” in tone, Coetzee’s protagonist actually is Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the story is a fictional account of events in Dostoevsky’s life prior to, and leading to, his writing of the novel Demons. In that way, Master of Petersburg is a sort of reverse mathematical problem. Given a set of factors, it is a matter of simple calculation to derive their product. But what if you start with the product – can you work backwards to discover the original sum from which that product was derived? The possibilities, particular with a large, complex figure, would be infinite. Here, the novel Demons is the product, the effect, the outcome. And from the known answer, Coetzee imagines the unknown questions.

Set in Russia in 1869, Master of Petersburg follows “Dostoevsky’s” grief-stricken return to St. Petersburg after news of the death of his stepson, Pavel, for whom he felt a profound though inscrutable love. While living in Pavel’s old room, he develops a sexual relationship with Pavel’s old landlady, the widow Anna Sergeyevna, along with a fascination with her adolescent daughter, Matryosha. As he becomes increasingly enmeshed in the enigma of his stepson’s death, he discovers Pavel was a member of the nihilist Sergei Nechayev’s revolutionary gang. Nechayev, who is living in hiding, has all the while been scheming to trap Dostoyevsky so to exploit his fame as an author by forcing him to write a pamphlet endorsing the Nechayevite philosophy. Out of these ultimately ambiguous social and political interactions, Dostoevsky begins writing a new novel, ostensibly Demons, in the last chapter of the book.

This plot lies at the murky intersection between fact and two fictions, Coetzeean fiction and Dostoevskian fiction (i.e., Demons). Several elements are based in fact: Dostoevsky did have a stepson named Pavel, who was likewise something of an enigma, although he survived his stepfather. Sergei Nechayev was a real Russian nihilist and revolutionary, and his association with the 1869 murder of a fellow student, Ivanov, partly inspired Dostoevsky to write Demons, where he portrays such idealists of his time as demonic. But the story also draws from the plot of Demons itself, most heavily from “At Tikhon’s,” a chapter originally suppressed by Dostoevsky’s editors, in which the character Stavrogin confesses to having once seduced his landlord’s 12-year old daughter, Matryosha, and driven her to suicide. And finally, to this heady mix Coetzee adds some fiction of his own.

You have to give Coetzee credit for this undertaking, this deconstruction of both the power and process of writing. As a prominent South African writer, no doubt Coetzee was keen to examine the political power of the authorial voice, through Nechayev’s belief in the import of having a famous writer pen the words of a revolutionary pamphlet – and the extreme measures he would take to bring about such a coup. Equally contemplated is the personal power of writing, as it is a means for “Dostoevsky” to access his son, to “give up his soul” so as to “meet him in death.”

But when it comes to the process of writing, you can’t escape the fact that this is not Dostoevsky writing about Dostoevsky writing. It is Coetzee writing about “Dostoevsky” writing. Given this structure, it’s Coetzee’s own role in solving the reverse mathematical problem that compels above all. Why did he choose what he did, from fact, from Dostoevskian fiction, and from Coetzeean fiction? Moreover, Demons is not a novel in a vacuum: many of Dostoevsky’s real-life inspirations are documented, yet Coetzee replaces several of these with fictional inspirations of his own design. Is Master of Petersburg then an account of a fictional writing process? Or is Coetzee laying his own writing process bare?

It’s nearly impossible not to be sidetracked by these thought experiments while reading Master of Petersburg. The fact that much of the (Dostoevskian) fictional parts of the plot are dedicated to Demon’s excised chapter involving the young girl’s molestation is particularly distracting. Coetzee is not alone in holding Stavrogin’s confession as integral to Demons: while some think that Dostoevsky himself was dissatisfied with the confession, others view the forced excision of what was an indispensable chapter as rendering the novel morally asymmetrical. But the extent to which “At Tikhon’s” aligns Demons is not my issue; rather, it is “Dostoevsky’s” largely unexplained tendency to continually attach a sexual subtext to the young girl Matryosha’s interactions, whether with Nechayev, with a sort of version of Pavel that he imagines in the future, or even with himself.

[Dostoyevsky] has no difficulty in imagining this child in her ecstasy… This is as far as the violation goes: the girl in the crook of his arm, the five fingers of his hand, white and dumb, gripping her shoulder. But she might as well be sprawled out naked…

It’s eventually jarring how Coetzee deliberately (and repeatedly) advocates that “Dostoevsky” would be prompted by his own perception of a young girl as above all a sexual object to conceive of the particular molestation scene described in Stavrogin’s confession. I’m not implying this rings false (though it’s somewhat overdone), just that it highlights the major weakness of Coetzee’s particular form of the reverse math problem as fiction: the reader is often far more preoccupied with why Coetzee made his choices than with the choices themselves.

covercoverThis brings me back to my original, existential question: why did Coetzee write Master of Petersburg? It’s an inspired project, but by its own premise it is merely an experiment, a study, rather than a novel. Coetzee has been criticized for his metafiction before: his 1986 novel Foe, which weaves its plot around Robinson Crusoe, drew him criticism for being a disappointingly politically irrelevant work coming from one of South Africa’s most lauded writers. The New York Times concluded that “the novel – which remains somewhat solipsistically concerned with literature and its consequences – lacks the fierceness and moral resonance of [Waiting for the Barbarians] and [Life and Times of Michael K]…”

However, my criticism of Master of Petersburg is of the literary, not political, variety. Countless excellent novels have been inspired by existing works, but though Coetzee’s writing is stunning, the story, composed of curious but ultimately inconclusive events, never takes hold. It offers much by way of intellectual exercise, but on its own fails to satisfy. More autonomous novels similarly fashioned out of vague questions and ideas contain a central truth or truths that are not merely valuable, but in a sense new, and that have thus driven the author to sit down to write. Here, the underlying purpose, the answer, exists in another novel altogether. And as it turns out, Dostoevsky’s answer is more interesting than Coetzee’s questions.

is an associate editor for The Millions. She works for the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NY Chapter of the ACLU. She was formerly a writer for The Atlantic's news website The Wire, and a co-editor of NY media blog FishbowlNY. Her writing has appeared in The Millions, TheAtlantic.com, Newsday, National Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and is partly collected at her website, TheCivilWriter.com. Follow @ujalasehgal.

2 comments:

  1. Fine essay but I would argue this, having recently read it: Coetzee wrote it, his major theme, is to explore the origins of civilian political violence–what we call terrorism with Nechaev as a touchstone founder.

    And how an artist, such as D,, such as C., has to have the imagination of nihilism–as Nechaev does(?)—within to even conceive of such…..

    What are those Shakespeare lines about having to somehow feel even the worst you can put on paper?

  2. It’s a difficult, strange, frustrating book, certainly, but deserves a less dismissive analysis than this, which is based on somewhat limited assumptions about what a work of fiction should be — statements like, “though Coetzee’s writing is stunning, the story, composed of curious but ultimately inconclusive events, never takes hold. It offers much by way of intellectual exercise, but on its own fails to satisfy” seems to me to show the reader experienced one of the major points of the novel without recognizing it, thus seeing as a flaw something that is, for those of us fascinated by such books, one of its primary strengths. Perhaps we have different ideas of what “satisfying” means, but many of the novels I find most compelling, most worthy of repeated readings are novels I never expect to find satisfying — pretty much everything I’ve read by Dostoyevsky and Coetzee is such a novel, and I’m grateful for them.

    It would be worth reading Margaret Scanlan’s 1997 essay on the book, available online here: http://bit.ly/bLfhk3 . Also worth noting that Master of Petersburg is the first novel Coetzee wrote after the death of his 23-year-old son Nicholas. Knowing that adds some resonance to such statements as, ‘equally contemplated is the personal power of writing, as it is a means for “Dostoevsky” to access his son, to “give up his soul” so as to “meet him in death.”’

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