The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

TheMasterOfPetersburgCoetzee’s novel of Dostoevsky (The Master of Petersburg, Penguin Books, 250 pages) is a mysterious portrait of the artist surrounding his The Possessed. Suppose a preliminary to Dostoevsky’s demons story could extend it via a narrative featuring the great author himself. Coetzee’s portrayal is that novel. Dostoevsky becomes a half-fiction in this role, somewhat real and somewhat false. Does that matter? It’s not easy to answer. As protagonist-novelist, Dostoevsky’s most important function for Coetzee might be as guide and exemplar, somewhat disheveled and brooding into our own age.

The year is 1869. Dostoevsky has left his young wife in Germany to travel to Saint Petersburg due to his stepson’s death. During his stay in Pavel’s room a new novel occurs to him full of political intrigue, police suspicion, and peculiar introverts interested in revolution. However, somewhat puzzling to a reader, the story will deviate in significant ways from the historical record. In Dostoevsky’s actual life his stepson Pavel has not died, and in fact will outlive him. Perhaps Coetzee is more interested in suggesting a look in the eyes, a cast of face, similar to the painter approaching the canvas. The hand moves and a figure appears. It is not a photograph. It is an essence somehow, a kind of abstract realism or pastiche. Dostoevsky emerges as secretive, peculiar, demanding.

Away with the hidden novelist, the invisible presence, and let him stand exposed with his characters! Dostoevsky becomes a protagonist revealing himself in a way not usually available through his great works. In Coetzee’s hands he resembles his own protagonist Stavrogin. He stands alongside his creation humanized and flawed while Coetzee pursues a secret biography apart from the official record into the hidden, seamy side, the all too human side. The grieving novelist remains obstinately in his dead stepson’s room. At the same time he works toward seduction of the landlady, an attractive woman in her thirties named Anna Sergeyevna Kolenkina. He is also attracted to her twelve year old daughter, Matryona. The visit complicates as he becomes physically involved with the landlady, eventually to consider either separating from his wife in Germany or keeping this new Petersburg Anna on the side, for occasional visits in the future.

But the reader may continue to experience some uneasiness with the license taken. The somewhat false, the invented side of things, arouses itself on the sidelines. Coetzee’s bold novel does not settle easily into a kind of dream-symbolism. It asks for a suspension-of-disbelief not always willing. Not only was Pavel not actually dead, there is no record of such a trip to Petersburg. Further, in 1869 Dostoevsky was living in Germany with his wife and scribe, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, and an infant daughter. Anna Grigorievna was an extraordinarily benevolent young woman and stabilizing influence, devoted to him, although problems with gambling and meeting deadlines continued. He was beginning a productive and more secure time in his life leading on to The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov. Nevertheless, in Coetzee’s novel here he is in Petersburg brooding and exploiting the death of his stepson.

Simultaneously he is being drawn into police suspicion and a network of revolutionaries who have probably been manipulating Pavel and perhaps murdered him. His prolonged visiting and keeping his son’s room leads from seduction of the landlady to strained relations with her and the daughter. He must also face the bitterness that for Pavel he had come to resemble his own father—an aloof, even cruel autocrat—so that Pavel disliked or even hated him. Additionally, his encounters with the chief revolutionary, Nechaev, torment him, although they also serve development of his new novel with its demons and their futile nihilism.

Then again, just as Pavel was not actually dead, Dostoevksy did not have the type of relationship with the boy as presented in Coetzee’s interpretation. Their association tended to be fractious, a system of obligations, and although possibly a torment to him it is dubious Dostoevsky would grieve to the extreme indicated, unless he is to some extent faking. Soon it becomes obvious that Dostoevsky is manipulating the boy’s death to protract his stay with Anna and Matryona. Yet, according to the historical record, Dostoevsky’s father was cruel and aloof, and a person named Nechaev did exist. Nechaev influenced the real Dostoevsky’s thinking in building The Possessed and led to the character Pyotr Stepanovitch.

This shambling, inept Dostoevsky in Coetzee’s novel is certainly a fresh view into a man whose personal life was besieged with family strife, a penchant for delay on his commitments related to his gambling addiction, his epilepsy, his wandering, his disillusionments with humanity. For Coetzee he is almost an idealized malcontent scribbler, prototype of the strange breed and herald to those modern and post-modern writers to follow, rooting into the flaws of their characters, experts in weakness.

At the end of The Master of Petersburg, Dostoevsky is reaching the climax of his descent. His stay at the stepson’s lodgings has advanced beyond grieving to needs both sexual and opportunistically related to creating his new novel. Also, his grieving might have been exaggerated, or to a degree acted out in a design for sympathy. As he settles into some manuscripting, which is simultaneously a way to manipulate the child Matryona, he realizes that his various inadequacies and “betrayals” constitute the torment he must endure as a writer.

The novel’s final passage:

He picks up his hat and leaves his lodgings. He does not recognize the hat, has no idea whose shoes he is wearing. In fact, he recognizes nothing of himself. If he were to look in a mirror now, he would not be surprised if another face were to loom up, staring back blindly at him.

He has betrayed everyone; nor does he see that his betrayals could go deeper. If he ever wanted to know whether his betrayals tasted more like vinegar or like gall, now is the time.

But there is no taste at all in his mouth, just as there is no weight in his heart. His heart, in fact, feels quite empty. He had not known beforehand it would be like this. But how could he have known? Not torment but a dull absence of torment. Like a soldier shot on the battlefield, bleeding, seeing the blood, feeling no pain, wondering: Am I dead already?

It seems to him a great price to pay. They pay him lots of money for writing books, said the child, repeating the dead child. What they failed to say was that he had to give up his soul in return. Now he begins to taste it. It tastes like gall (page 250).

“If he were to look in a mirror now, he would not be surprised if another face were to loom up, staring back blindly at him.” This other face is surely Stavrogin, The Possessed’s dark protagonist, as Dostoevsky’s double. But this idea is perhaps too convenient. As contrast, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, clearly indicated as “the non-fiction novel,” does not invent episodes and characters who are not part of the record. But Capote is focused more on historical peculiarity than iconic portraiture.

Coetzee appears to be most interested in a kind of poetry of the dark side although, all novel-cum-canvas theorizing aside, possibly Coetzee’s Dostoevsky is more like Coetzee himself than Dostoevsky himself. (Note Coetzee’s view that “all writing is autobiography” in Rachel Lawlan, “The Master of Petersburg: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee and Dostoevsky.”) The artist fixes an impression out of the well-springs of intuition and creation, and is not restricted to an official transcript. The result may be bold and challenging.

Nevertheless, the chapter usually included in The Possessed as an appendix, “Stavrogin’s Confession,” needs to be dealt with, and a bold and challenging way to deal with it is to occasionally imply Dostoevsky’s prurience with the twelve year old Matryona. There is nothing overt or criminal in this attention. For example, he observes her in her nightgown in ways nobody would notice. This delicate matter is at its furthest extreme with the fantasy near novel’s end, in which, as his pen moves, Dostoevsky imagines the child lying naked next to a man, “her face pressed against the curve of his shoulder, where she snuggles and roots like a baby” (page 241). The moment occurs in the final chapter, titled “Stavrogin,” perhaps the strongest evidence Coetzee sees Stavrogin as Dostoevsky’s double.

This view relates to discovery of several documents early in the twentieth century. The chapter titled “Stavrogin’s Confession” was first discovered in 1921, after it had been cut from The Possessed by publisher’s request when it was first published in 1872. The chapter includes Stavrogin’s seduction of a girl in her twelfth year named Matryona. The seduction is handled carefully, without sensationalism. The most hideous aspect of Stavrogin’s crime is his cold indifference. Consistent with his peculiar tendencies throughout the novel, he feels no empathy or concern for her, peeps at her as she suffers, and is satisfied with her suicide because he will never be discovered.

Coetzee tracks the origins of this seduction to the moment Dostoevsky is in his stepson’s room writing preliminary material for the character Stavrogin, with Matryona visiting and observing. But again there is something questionable about Dostoevsky supposedly extrapolating this infamous episode from his own depraved experiences in sundry bath houses on his travels. Despite a great deal of speculation over the last century it is not certain Dostoevsky perversely foreshadowed his character Stavrogin’s behavior with Matryona. Likewise there is no evidence he was an axe-murderer previous to creating his character Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

On the other hand, Dostoevsky’s interest in cruelty and characters with such sadistic potentials as Stavrogin owes much to his being sentenced to death as a young man, then reprieved at the last moment and sent to prison in Siberia. His own account of this experience in Memoirs of the House of the Dead (1861) shows that the prison’s criminal elements were no less brutal or psychopathic than similar individuals today. Already a successful novelist as a young man, surely this four years’ imprisonment was seminal to his future work. There is for example an account of a man who murdered his father by cutting off his head and hiding him in a sewage ditch. He then lay the head at the top of the body with a pillow under it. He spent the next month in an orgy of celebration with his father’s inheritance, then turned himself in to the police.

Dostoevsky’s narrator, Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, who quickly becomes a thin pretext for Dostoevsky himself in this account, also speaks of criminals who murdered children for the enjoyment of it: “I remember that a brigand, who was drunk (it was sometimes possible to get drunk in the prison), once began to tell how he had killed a five-year-old boy, how he first lured him away with a toy, and then took him into an empty shed somewhere and killed him” (Memoirs of the House of the Dead, Oxford University Press, 2008, page 11). Such a model of cruelty might have influenced Dostoevsky’s creation of Stavrogin with Matryona nearly a decade later.

So, yes, unlike In Cold Blood, Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is not a novelistic parallel to history, but a tale in which the somewhat true and the somewhat false lie together in a fictional portrait, as with painter and canvas searching for the likeness of an Old Master. To lay aside the history with this experiment by Coetzee—as in inventing Pavel’s death and a sentimental relationship with the boy not supported by the record—is possibly germane to “the art of the novel.” It fosters an impression or sketch of the essential, and imagines what might have been as with dialogue and excerpts from Dostoevsky’s writings. The discrepancies fall under a “willing suspension of disbelief”—but doubts scurry alongside some of the alterations. The power of this novel may be affected, although it certainly is intriguing.

Overall, in keeping with the “betrayals” he laments in the novel’s last words, the Dostoevsky of The Master of Petersburg is manipulative and opportunistic, incapable of love, and alien to the quality of Christ-like compassion that his major novels emphasize. But Dostoevsky’s struggles—unusual in their persistence and accompanied by his continual resilience, his resurgent explorations with the great novels, as with Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov—stand in the way of narrowing him like this, including reduction to the character of Stavrogin. In The Possessed itself, development of Stavrogin is inconsistent and thin until the chapter “Stavrogin’s Confession,” where, finally, his neutralness, his disinterest, is fully revealed. This kind of paralysis of soul Dostoevsky resisted throughout his life, from imprisonment in Siberia, through troubled relations with his family, intrigues with young women, and into his successful marriage with Anna Grigorievna.

Coetzee’s Dostoevsky is self-righteous and secretive, with dark currents of perversity running through his genius. He is a wretched figure, a little ridiculous. At times the portrait seems farfetched. Then again we are reading fiction, not critical biography. The historical Dostoevsky is likewise subject to mystery. Whether convincing or somewhat strained, The Master of Petersburg projects Dostoevsky into our own time and invites us to find him nearby, still exploring the deviant human soul.

–Peter Bollington, author of Mechanic of Fortune 2012

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