The Master of Petersburg, by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg (Penguin Books, 1995, 250 pp.). First published in Great Britain in 1994.

Abbreviations used in this article: FM (Fyodor Mikhailovich [Dostoevsky], AG (Anna Grigorievna [Snitkina-Dostoevskaya], his wife), AS (Anna Sergeyevna, character in Coetzee’s novel), Master (The Master of Petersburg)

Note: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in 1821; the year 2021 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth.


On April 12/26, 1867, Fyodor Dostoevsky and his new bride, Anna Grigorievna, left St. Petersburg by train for their European “vacation.” The trip was occasioned by their desperate need to get away from Dostoevsky’s creditors—who were a constant threat to send him to debtor’s prison or to confiscate all his worldly possessions—and from relatives whose presence was a threat to break up their marriage almost before it had begun.

AG (1846-1918), Dostoevsky’s almost child bride—he was in his mid-forties, she was barely out of her teens—became an immediate source of resentment for (1) Emilia Fyodorovna and her family; she was the wife of Dostoevsky’s dead brother Mikhail; he felt an obligation to lend her financial support and she felt entitled to that support; and (2) Pavel Isaev (Pasha—1847-1900), Dostoevsky’s scapegrace stepson by his first wife, Marya Dmitrievna—who died of TB in 1864.

We know little of Pasha’s life, and of course had he not been Dostoevsky’s stepson his name would have vanished altogether from history. What we do know of him, in relation to his stepfather, is almost all bad. He remained a thorn in Dostoevsky’s side for many years, the perpetual sponger. FM asked his friends for help in finding employment for Pasha. They did help, but the lazy Pasha, it seemed, could never hold a job. Even after he was a married man Pasha continued behaving irresponsibly, and as long as Dostoevsky was alive he went on sponging from him. As for AG, a girl only a year older than Pasha, he vehemently opposed his father’s marriage and did his best to make things difficult for her.

The European “vacation” ended up lasting four years and never felt remotely like a vacation. FM and AG were dependent for cash solely on what he could earn as a writer, so he was constantly trying to write fiction and soliciting advance funds from his publisher back in Russia. Living isolated from friends and relatives, in places where they did not speak the language, the couple was often forced to pawn personal items in order to survive. Perpetually cash-strapped, they never managed even such an ordinary thing as attending a musical concert or opera. Ever dissatisfied with lodgings or landlords or weather, they moved constantly across Europe, living at various times in Germany, Switzerland, Italy. At one point in Master Coetzee has his “FM” lonely in St. Petersburg, longing for “Dresden and the comfortable regularity of life there.” Not likely. Under such circumstances the real FM would have missed his wife and baby daughter, but not Dresden. His letters of the time make repeated reference to how much he hates the Germans.

Their precarious situation abroad was complicated by Dostoevsky’s epileptic seizures and by his mania for gambling. Although whatever money they had was meagre, he frequently lost at the roulette tables. Then he would come crawling back to AG, begging on his knees for forgiveness and asking her to pawn personal items, so that he could go back to the tables and lose more money. He had a system for winning big, so he told her, and if he could only remain calm while playing, his system would work. He never could remain calm. Meanwhile, back in Russia, sister-in-law Emilia Fyorodovna and sponger stepson Pasha went on demanding financial support. Feeling guilty that he did not help them enough, FM did his best to get them cash when he could. In a letter to his friend Apollon Maikov he explained, “In Pasha’s case, he was entrusted to my care by poor Marya Dmitrievna on her deathbed. So how can I abandon him altogether? He is like a son to me . . . If I leave an impression of goodness and kindness on his heart now, it will stand him in good stead as he matures.”

You would think that life under these near intolerable conditions would preclude starting a family, but no, AG gave birth to two children while living abroad and was pregnant with another when they finally returned to Russia in 1871. Sofya (Sonya) was born in Geneva on March 5, 1868. It was FM’s first natural child, and the middle-aged author doted on her. His grief knew no bounds when she died of pneumonia on May 12. He “sobbed and wept like a woman [wrote AG], standing in front of the body of his darling as it grew cold, and covering her tiny white face and hands with burning kisses. I never again saw such paroxysms of grief.” Lyubov (Lyuba) was born in Dresden on September 26, 1869; she lived into adulthood, dying in Italy in 1926. Lyubov published an account of her father’s life that reeks with fictional episodes of her own making; she also tried writing fiction. Plagued by various physical and emotional ailments, she in fact seems to have grown up to be something of an “infernal, Dostoevskian” woman.

Under these trying conditions FM doggedly went on writing. While abroad he published the novel The Idiot and the long story “The Eternal Husband,” and he made a start on another long novel, The Devils (sometimes translated as The Possessed), which he completed only after his return to Russia.


In his novel on Dostoevsky, J.M. Coetzee changes a few facts at the start. In Coetzee’s fiction the scapegrace Pasha dies, by murder or suicide, in the fall of 1869. The real FM at that time was back in Dresden, furiously working on “The Eternal Husband” (Sept.-Dec., 1869), but Coetzee’s “FM” arrives in St. Petersburg (October, 1869), grieving mightily over Pasha—never called Pasha in this novel, but always Pavel—and determined not only to investigate his death, but also to create some sort of mystical communion with him: to take Pavel’s death upon himself and make it at one with his own death (more on this below). Pavel, it seems (in Coetzee’s fiction), had been a member of Sergei Nechaev’s terrorist group, and the notorious Nechaev himself appears in Master and confronts “FM.”

In October of 1869 the newborn Lyubov was hardly a month old, and one seriously doubts that FM would have left AG alone to cope with their baby—eking out a penurious and lonely life in Dresden—but  never mind. Another serious improbability concocted by Coetzee is that, hoping to avoid contact with his creditors, Dostoevsky travels back to Russia on a false passport, that of Pavel’s dead father, Aleksandr Isaev. In the first place, you doubt that he would have in his possession a valid passport for Isaev, who died in Siberia in August, 1855.

In the second place, travelling on a false passport could have created enormous problems for FM, had he been caught doing so. We know now that Tsarist secret police had already given orders that he be thoroughly searched and that his papers be confiscated upon his crossing the Russian border. Why? Because he had unwisely been on friendly terms with N.P. Ogarev in Geneva, and Ogarev was a confederate of Herzen and Bakunin—a revolutionary firebrand who had personal connections with one of the most dangerous revolutionaries around, Sergei Nechaev. When FM and AG finally returned to Russia in July, 1871, they fully expected to be searched and to have documents confiscated by the secret police. They were, in fact, held up in customs, but the shrieks of baby daughter Lyuba, who was hungry, got on the nerves of the customs agents, and they waved the family on through. Coetzee not only has FM travelling on a fake passport; he also writes a scene in which FM admits the deception to a police official who is interviewing him. Not likely.

“FM” the Fabricator

Any writer of novels is a fabricator of fictions, and that, of course, is a central point in Master. Coetzee’s FM is blocked as a writer throughout the whole novel; the climax of the book comes when he suddenly sits down—very close to the end—and begins writing. But from the very beginning he is, in effect, writing himself, concocting his role as bereaved father. Early in the story Anna Sergeyevna, the landlady where the dead Pavel had roomed—and where FM will room for the duration of the story—mentions that she had lost a child in infancy. “An infant’s death is easier to bear,” she remarks, and this would have set off bells and whistles in the head of the real FM, so recently bereaved of his infant daughter Sonya. But that has no bearing for Coetzee’s “FM,” since Sonya does not exist; she is never mentioned in Master.

Even if we as readers had no inkling of what the real Pasha Isaev was like, we would get the message, reinforced as the book goes on: “FM” is not really grieving over his dead stepson. He is playing the role of the proper griever and trying to sell himself on the grief. He puts his nose to Pavel’s pillow, presses his forehead to the white suit he left behind and “the smell of his son comes to him.” Much is made of scenes like this, but we consistently doubt the sincerity of FM’s grief. Going out to visit Pavel’s burial place with AS and her daughter Matryona, he puts on a show for them, throwing himself on the mound over the grave and rubbing his face in the wet earth. When he gets up he thinks, “What a Jewish performance! But let her see! Let her see one is not made of stone! Let her see there are no bounds!” This is the one allusion in the novel to FM’s anti-Semitism, which was always at the forefront of his personality.

But would the real FM put on such a “Jewish” performance? Quite possibly. If you read about Dostoevsky’s life—or read the hysterical scenes in so many of his fictions—you get the feeling that he not only indulges himself in melodrama, as do his characters, but also takes a kind of voluptuous pleasure, as do they, in the performance. Much later in the novel we come upon this passage: “He shakes his head as if to rid it of a plague of devils. What is it that is corrupting the integrity of his grieving, that insists it is nothing but a lugubrious disguise?” So it is a disguise, his wallow in bereavement, but why does he need this disguise? In order, apparently, to enable him to play lots of other mind games with himself.


“He has been tugged out of human time.” His stepson’s death has propelled FM into a different dimension. “Since the news came of his son’s death, something has been ebbing out of him that he thinks of as firmness. I am the one who is dead, he thinks; or rather, I died but my death failed to arrive. His sense of his own body is that it is strong, sturdy, that it will not yield of its own accord. His chest is like a barrel with sound staves. His heart will go on beating for a long time. The stream that carries him still moves forward, still has direction, even purpose; but that purpose is no longer life. He is being carried by dead water, a dead stream.”

Thirty pages on another assertion: “This is not grief. This is death, death coming before its time, come not to overwhelm him and devour him but simply to be with him. It is like a dog that has taken up residence with him, a big grey dog, blind and deaf and stupid and immovable. When he sleeps the dog sleeps, when he wakes the dog wakes, when he leaves the house, the dog shambles behind him.”

This idea of your death coming in advance, then backing off but remaining somehow a cogent presence for the rest of your life suggests Dostoevsky’s experience with almost being executed by firing squad in 1849—an episode not treated in Coetzee’s novel—after he was caught up in the activities of the Petrashevsky Circle. The conspirators were to be shot three at a time, and the first three were already tied blindfolded to poles when the execution—planned as fake from the start—was called off. Dostoevsky was in the second grouping of three, and the experience left deep scars in his psyche.  

FM’s death walked right up to him that day, then backed off, but when it comes that close you cannot push it away altogether; it’s there waiting for you. FM rehashed the whole experience fictionally in his novel The Idiot, which appears, however, to have little or no relevance to Coetzee’s Master. Similar thoughts arise in the head of Victor Hugo’s protagonist in his “Last Day of a Condemned Man,” a work familiar to Dostoevsky, and in Maurice Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death, in which he asserts that in near-death (near-execution) experiences “your death stays with you.” You, in effect, live the rest of your life in limbo, not exactly dead, but not alive either, in a kind of half death. A zombie.

The liminality is also suggested by the leitmotif of falling, which recurs throughout the novel. Pavel’s death results from a fall from a tower, and FM imagines “the last fraction of the last instant of his fall,” when “Pavel knew that nothing could save him, that he was dead.” He would like to believe that during that liminal moment his stepson’s mind had “etherized itself against whatever is too enormous to be borne,” but he must admit to himself that “Pavel, falling, knew everything.”

Later the terrorist Nechaev—most likely the one responsible for Pavel’s death—takes FM on a climb up that same tower. FM looks down at the space through which his stepson fell. “He grips the railing, stares down there into the plummeting darkness. Between here and there an eternity of time, so much time that it is impossible for the mind to grasp it. Between here and there Pavel was alive, more alive than ever before. We live most intensely while we are falling—a truth that wrings the heart.” The liminal moment, the time between when the headsman puts the guillotine blade in motion and the guillotine chops off your head, is the moment when you are living your life with total intensity. The plot of Coetzee’s novel is much complicated by our knowledge that roughly a year before he wrote Master, Coetzee’s own son died from a fall at age 23. Were we unaware of that biographical fact we would read the novel in a different way.

As mentioned above, “FM”’s grief over his dead stepson often appears insincere, an act he performs for others and for his very self. But there are passages where the grief seems intense and genuine. Such is a long passage (p. 53-54), which I quote in part: “Not oblivion, but the moment before oblivion [again here, the liminal moment], when I come panting up to you at the rim of the well and we look upon each other for a last time, knowing we are alive, sharing this one life, our only life. All that I am left to grasp for: the moment of that gaze, salutation and farewell in one, past all arguing, past all pleading: Hello, old friend. Goodbye, old friend. Dry eyes. Tears turned to crystals.

“I hold your head between my hands. I kiss your brow. I kiss your lips.” This passage, teeming with love and grief, goes on for three more paragraphs. I get the feeling here that it is the author Coetzee experiencing these feelings and writing these lines, not his character “FM.” The feelings seem too genuine for the conflicted FM of this book, who never loved his stepson deeply. Nor did the real FM; simple fact: stepsons seldom are loved with the intense love one feels for sons. Coetzee, who gets lots of things about Dostoevsky wrong, gets that one right.


At one point FM thinks that Pavel was fortunate not to be “born of me.” The implication is that he might have inherited his father’s epilepsy, and this is a telling detail for those who know something of Dostoevsky’s life. His son Aleksei (Alyosha), born August 10, 1875, died of an epileptic seizure in 1878. The leitmotif of epilepsy in Master is congruent with the leitmotif of falling. Throughout the novel Dostoevsky is described frequently as anticipating a seizure; twice he has seizures. At an early point in the action he has “a vision of Pavel smiling at him, at his peevishness, his tears, his histrionics . . . the smile is not of derision but on the contrary of friendliness and forgiveness. He knows! he thinks: He knows and does not mind! [knows what? we may ask; probably that his stepfather’s grief-stricken pose is an act—URB]. A wave of gratitude and joy and love passes over him. Now there is sure to be a fit!”

Later there is a description of the aura that precedes the seizure. Falling asleep in the room he has taken from AS, Pavel’s old room, “He awakes full of surprise. Though it is still dark, he feels as if he had rested enough for seven nights. He is fresh and invincible; the very tissues of his brain seem washed clean. He can barely contain himself. He is like a child at Easter, on fire for the household to wake up so that he can share his joy with them.” He imagines waking AS and Matryona and dancing with them about the apartment, then taking on “the fourth one” (Pavel) as well to join in the dance. “Joy breaking like a dawn! But only for an instant. It is not merely that clouds begin to cross this new, radiant sky. It is as if, at the moment when the sun comes forth in its glory, another sun appears too, a shadow sun, an anti-sun sliding across its face. The word omen crosses his mind in all its dark, ominous weight. The dawning sun is there not for itself but to undergo eclipse; joy shines out only to reveal what the annihilation of joy will be like.”

Soon after this he staggers out onto the stairwell and has a seizure. When he returns to consciousness, “It is as if he has been born a minute ago, born into a world of unrelieved night . . . “A body falls vertically through space inside him. He is that body.” He bemoans his own condition: “Why am I accursed? he cries out within himself.” There seems to be nothing compensatory for the fits: “Nor do the trances themselves provide illumination. They are not visitations. Far from it they are nothing—mouthfuls of his life sucked out of him as if by a whirlwind that leaves behind not even a memory of darkness.”

Much later in the novel “In spells of dizziness and palpitations of the heart, in exhaustion and irritability, a fit has been announcing itself for days without arriving. Unless the entire state in which he lives can be called a fit.” Near the end of the book there is a scene in which the liminal moment of epilepsy is linked to an insight into the all-pervasiveness of evil, even in a child. FM is conversing with Matryona, who for a brief second gives him a “shameless and derisive” look.

“It is impossible that what he has just seen has truly taken place. What he has seen comes not from the world he knows, but from another existence. It is as though for the first time he has been present and conscious during a seizure; so that for the first time his eyes have been open to where he is when he is seized. In fact, he must wonder whether seizure is any longer the right word, whether the word has not all along been possession—whether everything that for the past twenty years has gone under the name of seizure has not been a mere presentiment of what is now happening, the quaking and dancing of the body a long-drawn-out prelude to a quaking of the soul.”

A telling point in Master. The seizures of FM over a lifetime are—so we are told—a prelude to what is happening to him over the course of the book’s action: his progression toward the point where he approaches total madness and is possessed totally by devils. In a book whose title might be better borrowed from Dostoevsky himself—The Devils—Coetzee brings his fictional “FM” closer and closer as the action progresses to a state of demonic possession. More on this later. For now, suffice it to say that his descriptions of FM’s seizures, and especially of the aura preceding them, fail to describe, or prefer not to describe what the real FM experienced. In his own descriptions of the seizures, and in his fiction—he gives the experience to his character, the epileptic Prince Myshkin in The Idiot—Dostoevsky ascribes mystical enlightenment to the aura.

“Dostoevsky himself had felt, as Myshkin does in the ‘aura’ preceding the onset of a fit, the supernatural illumination of a realm embodying ‘the acme of harmony and beauty,’ which aroused in him ‘a feeling, unknown and undivined until then, of completeness, of proportion, of reconciliation, and of ecstatic devotional merging in the highest synthesis of life.’ . . . Dostoevsky had also ‘actually said to himself at that second that, for the infinite happiness he had felt in it, that second might be worth the whole of life.’ It was not only the fictional Myshkin who could affirm, in words taken from the Book of Revelation, that ‘at that moment I seem somehow to understand the extraordinary saying that there shall be no more time.’” Here we have more liminality. And a brief connection with Ultimate Reality. Quotation above is from Joseph Frank. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, p. 313-14. For more discussion of the “supernatural plenitude” of the aura, see the same book, p. 316. For an idea of what a hideous burden the disease was on FM, see the footnote on p. 410.

The Political Theme

Although the plot of Master concerns itself largely with the inner workings of Dostoevsky’s mind and psyche, there is an overt subplot. It involves the terrorist Sergei Nechaev (1847-1882) and revolves around the timeworn theme of fathers and sons. While living abroad and formulating his ideas for what was to be his novel The Devils—the Dostoevsky novel that has greatest relevance to Coetzee’s book—FM constantly read the Russian newspapers and followed developments in the “Nechaev affair.” His character Peter Verkhovensky in The Devils is an unprincipled, vicious nihilist based on Nechaev.

Nechaev fled Russia and went abroad in 1869, after being implicated in the murder (Nov. 26, 1869) of a student named Ivanov, who was apparently a member of his own small revolutionary group. Why exactly he was murdered has not been established, but possibly Nechaev needed a murder to bind together more cohesively the others in the group. In Master Nechaev tells FM at one point: “If you do not kill you are not taken seriously.” Ivanov may have also had objections to some of Nechaev’s policies. In Master Coetzee plays on the name Ivanov, giving it to a minor character, a police spy and derelict—something of a Marmeladov type from Crime and Punishment—who interacts with FM and is later murdered. One of the chapters in the novel is also titled “Ivanov,” and it is worth mentioning that Nechaev came originally from the city of Ivanovo. The maiden name of FM’s mother was Nechaev.

In Master Coetzee imagines that Nechaev has returned incognito to Russia from abroad and is in St. Petersburg to foment dissent among the students and, eventually, incite a peasant revolution. There are several scenes in which he interacts with FM, playing cat and mouse games with him. Pavel, it seems, had been a member of Nechaev’s small revolutionary circle in Petersburg, and his fictional murder is analogous to the murder of the real Ivanov. Nechaev has an illegal printing press and wants FM to write something condemning the police for Pavel’s murder—an accusation to be distributed to the volatile students and the people.

We are kept in the dark about the circumstances of Pavel’s death for much of the novel. It may have been—so we are told—a suicide or the work of the police. But late in the action we are provided the most logical scenario: Nechaev has murdered Pavel as a way of drawing FM back to Petersburg, where he hopes to use the author of Crime and Punishment in aid of his revolutionary plans. As FM tells himself, “Pavel’s death was merely the bait to lure him from Dresden to Petersburg. He has been the quarry all the time.”

Fathers and Sons

The theme of conflict between the generations is big in Master, just as it is in Dostoevsky’s Devils, where FM takes off from the Turgenev novel Fathers and Children and establishes the relevance of the issue for a later generation. In discussing “the Nechaev phenomenon” the police official Maximov in Master remarks, “Perhaps it is just the old matter of fathers and sons after all, such as we have always had, only deadlier in this particular generation.” At times Coetzee implies that the death of a son is always something of a triumph for the father, who by outliving his offspring has won the age-old battle. Pavel’s behavior after FM’s marriage to AG, a young woman close to the age of his stepson, appears based partly on sexual jealousy. At the end of Chapter Nine Pavel is described as “obstinately not accepting that she, AG, would henceforth share his father’s bed.” This reverses the usual paradigm, in which “fathers envy their sons their women.”

Coetzee even pushes the issue back to the previous generation, at one point speculating on Nechaev’s relationship with his father. In taunting FM, Nechaev tells him, “I know about your own father, Pavel Isaev told me—what a petty tyrant he was, how everyone hated him, till his own peasants killed him.” This myth, by the way—that Dostoevsky’s father was murdered by peasants on his estate—has now been put to rest, but quite possibly FM himself believed it. The theme of fathers and children pervades the text of the whole book. At one point FM recalls a fellow-convict in Siberia “who had violated his twelve-year-old daughter and then strangled her. He had been found after the event sitting by the side of a duckpond with the lifeless body in his arms. He had yielded without a struggle, insisting only on carrying the dead child home himself and laying her out on a table—doing all of this with, it was reported, the greatest tenderness.” This episode is summed up as “Murderous tenderness, tender murderousness.” Another good title for Coetzee’s novel.

One of the major themes treated in Master is the deviltry of revolutionary aspirations. Devilish ideas are passed from one revolutionary to another. FM tells Maximov that “there has entered a spirit” into Nechaev. There is nothing remarkable about the spirit. It is a dull, resentful and murderous spirit . . . It despises ideas, it is outside ideas, and Nechaev himself is not its embodiment but its host; or rather, he is under possession by it.” Maximov prefers to see Nechaev as “possessed by a demon.” At a different point Nechaev is described as “the Mongol left behind in the Russian soul,” which reminds me of portraits of Vladimir Lenin, with the obvious Tatar blood that stands out in his visage.

Of course, Nechaev’s ideals at their base are commendable; they are the ideals of practically all left-wing revolutionaries: razing pernicious capitalism, giving food, clothing and housing to the poor; re-educating the intelligentsia: “Everyone will go to school again, even the professors. The peasants will be the teachers and the professors will be the students. In our schools we will make new men and new women. Everyone will be reborn with a new heart.”

Sounds easy, but it never is. Remaking human hearts. And that re-education project has ominous overtones; it anticipates what was tried in the twentieth century, in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Laos—resulting in hideous brutality and repression of the innocent, including mass torture and murder. As for the fathers and sons theme of this book, Coetzee emphasizes that the sons take the innocuous-looking but potentially murderous ideas from the fathers. How did we get to Lenin and the Russian Revolution in 1917? It did not begin overnight. It began with certain philosophical and political ideas that came out of Western Europe and were embraced, developed by Russian radicals: Belinksy, Pisarev, Chernyshevksy, Bakunin, and many more, including Dostoevsky.

Nechaev in a way is the son of FM; he has read Crime and Punishment and tells Dostoevsky that the novel inspired him. Nechaev the nihilist is also, in part, a creation of the Petrashevsky dreamers of 1849, who included Dostoevsky himself. Although he kept this a secret for the whole of his life, it has now been established that FM was a member of a secret revolutionary sub-circle of the Petrashevsky-ites, led by the dire Speshnev, who some see as the prototype of the sinister Stavrogin in The Devils. Had the tsarist authorities discovered the existence of this small circle of men bent on fomenting violent revolution, Dostoevsky may well have been executed in 1849, rather than being put through a mock execution.

By the time we come to the action of Coetzee’s novel, FM has long been disabused of his early revolutionary aspirations inspired by French Utopian Socialism. After his sojourn in the labor camps of Siberia such ideas seemed dangerously naïve to him. His novel The Devils, not yet written in 1869, when Master is set, but already percolating in his mind, is a vehement attack on Nihilism and all its sisters. In fact, a serious reading of Dostoevsky’s major novels, beginning with Notes from the Underground and concluding with The Brothers Karamazov, reveals that Dostoevsky, in words, has already torn down the edifice of communism before it was ever built. They built it anyway, first in Russia, then in various other countries worldwide. Only now, in the twenty-first century, has that sorry edifice fallen into almost total disrepair. Of course, there are still a few builders of the edifices of Utopia out there today, people who have not learned the lesson they should long since have learned: that human nature is such that when you build utopian castles they never stand tall, and millions of innocent people will die.

The “FM” of The Master of Petersburg: A Pedophile

Coetzee’s novel has little development of plot. The political subplot involving Nechaev is secondary to what is going with “FM” in 1869. That’s where the real plot lies: in the mind and psyche of “FM.” From the very first pages Coetzee’s “Dostoevsky” is portrayed in ways that present him as much more negative than positive. On the first page he is described as “a man in late middle age, bearded and stooped.” He is, by the way, only forty-eight, but 48 was a lot older in the nineteenth century, and Dostoevsky’s more than excruciating life wore him out early. He ended up living only sixty years and was showing signs of deep old age at the time of his death in 1881.

“FM” comes to see the apartment where his dead stepson had lived, talks to the landlady there, Anna Sergeyevna. He asks to take his stepson’s room for the month of October and November, pays for the room. AS agrees, but reluctantly. “She does not want this mournful man in her home, casting darkness all about him.”

Ten pages later he imagines the impression he must be making on the child, Matryona. “This blackness of mine, this beardedness, this boniness, must be as repugnant as death the reaper himself. Death, with his bony hips and his inch-long teeth and the rattle of his ankles as he walks.” The FM of this novel is a creature in dire distress; in fact, that is largely what the novel is about. Early on (p. 19) he thinks, “From somewhere to somewhere I am in retreat; when the retreat is completed, what will be left of me? . . . Since the news came of his son’s death, something has been ebbing out of him that he thinks of as firmness. I am the one who is dead, he thinks; or rather, I died, but my death failed to arrive.”

So it goes. In Master we are presented with a “Dostoevsky” who takes the death of his stepson upon himself and feels already half dead, a kind of ghost who drifts through the action of the novel. “FM” is more than a little bit mad, a blocked writer who fears what will emerge if he begins writing. “But the writing, he fears, would be that of a madman—vileness, obscenity, page after page of it, untamable. He thinks of the madness as running through the artery of his right arm down to the fingertips and the pen and so to the page. It runs in a stream; he need not dip the pen, not once. What flows on to the paper is neither blood nor ink but an acrid black, with an unpleasing green sheen when the light glances off it.”

This description, once again, comes early in the novel, page 18, but the intense dreariness that it embodies is a hallmark of the book as a whole. Coetzee is a writer not given to humor. His style in this book about FM is utterly un-dostoevskian. The tale is told in calm, laconic language, not at all in keeping with Dostoevsky’s wild melodrama—not only in his fictional works, but also in his life. Those who have not read FM may have a view of him and his fictions that is totally sober and dark. Not so for the real FM. He had a wicked, frenetic sense of humor—true a very dark humor. But his books are far from dreary.

In Master there is a constant emphasis on lack of control: “FM” is not in control of himself. He rashly begins an affair with AS, and after their first coupling “he feels like a leaf or a seed in the grip of a headlong force, a winged seed drawn up into the highest windstream, carried dizzily above the oceans.” The sick “Dostoevsky” of this book is “a man in thrall to a spirit of petty evil.” In this respect he much resembles the terrorist and Nihilist Nechaev, but Nechaev’s evil is inspired by politics. “FM”’s evil has its origins in perversion of human sexuality. Coetzee’s book teems with the subject of pedophilia; in fact, pedophilia is the major theme of the whole novel.

In Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils, a novel intent, largely, on decimating all ideals of left-wing political revolutionaries, a subtheme involves one of the author’s lifelong preoccupations: sexual perversion, and, in particular, pedophilia. One of the chapters of Devils, titled “At Tikhon’s,” never made it into the final published version of the novel, but it has particular relevance for Coetzee’s novel. Dostoevsky’s publisher refused to print that chapter, and all of the writer’s confederates and friends advised against printing it. The chapter describes how the main protagonist of the novel, Stavrogin, rapes a little girl, Matryona (Matryosha) in a bathhouse. Coetzee gives the name of the girl to the little girl of his novel, and his final chapter is titled “Stavrogin.”

At one point in Master “FM” takes perverse pleasure in “rubbing little Matryosha’s face” in the words of a squalid story that he tells her. The story—involved with the image of Pavel’s white suit so important in the text—is told twice. Pavel is the hero of this story, which relates his kindness to a crippled girl, not of sound mind. Reacting to the way people have abused the girl, Pavel buys a white suit and goes to her as a suitor. He treats her with relentless solicitude. The second time, much later in the novel, “FM” reveals that Pavel’s behavior was far from commendable. Rather, he enjoyed tormenting the girl, pretending to be her suitor. The whole thing was a cruel joke.

Such subject matter is common in Dostoevsky’s works. Just one example: in Crime and Punishment the more than weird “hero” Raskolnikov takes up with a crippled girl, pretends he loves her and wants to marry her, but his motivation is far from pure. In Master “FM” takes the subject matter, and real names of the characters, Maria Lebyadkina and her brother, Captain Lebyadkin, from his Devils—not yet written in 1869, but never mind. In Devils the perverse Stavrogin goes so far as to marry the crippled and retarded girl, one of the many things that he does for a good laugh.

In telling Matryosha the story of the white suit, “FM” behaves just as the most perverse characters in his own novels. He even goes so far as to suggest to her that there is no God. “Pavel asked God to save him. God said no.” Here we are into some very sick stuff. “FM” metaphorically violates little Matryosha, and in so doing, “He thinks of child prostitutes he has known, here and in Germany; he thinks of men who search out such girls because beneath the garish paint and provocative clothes they detect something that outrages them, a certain inviolability, a certain maidenliness. She is prostituting the Virgin, such a man says, recognizing the flavour of innocence in the gesture with which the girl cups her breasts for him, in the movement with which she spreads her thighs . . . Deliberately, with teeth clenched, he hurts her, and then hurts her again and again, watching her face all the time for something that goes beyond mere wincing, mere bearing of pain: for the sudden wide-eyed look of a creature that begins to understand its life is in danger.”

Immediately after this hideous passage “The vision, the fit, the rictus of the imagination, passes. He soothes her a last time, withdraws his arm, finds a way of being with her as he was before.” This is to suggest that the immersion of “FM” in perversity is somehow akin to what happens to him during an epileptic seizure: he departs from his usual self and enters a different dimension.

At another point in the novel “FM” imagines writing a pornographic book in French—stepping, in effect, into the territory of the Marquis de Sade. Titled Memoirs of a Russian Nobleman, it would be “a book of the night, in which every excess would be represented and no bounds respected . . . With a chapter in which the noble memoirist reads aloud to the young daughter of his mistress a story of the seduction of a young girl in which he himself emerges more and more clearly as having been the seducer.”

Nechaev, says “FM,” “wants to live in a body at the limits of sensation, at the limits of bodily knowledge. That is why he can say everything is permitted . . .” Here he is speaking, as well, of himself. He thinks, And you? Are you so different? Those italicized words above, everything is permitted, are a quotation from The Brothers Karamazov.

The stylistic trick of Coetzee’s book seems to be this: as the action progresses the devils come more and more powerfully to inhabit the mind and psyche of “FM,” just as he comes closer to the point when he will begin writing his novel The Devils. Nechaev is described as demon-possessed; as for “FM,” “he has lost his way,” and “the only voices he hears now are devil-voices.” That’s on page 126, but consider this a hundred pages later: the writer feels a presence in the room, and “It is that of a thousand petty demons swarming in the air like locusts.”

“FM” is a writer, and as such, he can ostensibly “turn the falling into a flying.” Use fiction to build new worlds, overcoming somehow even death. But he has made “his own sordid and contemptible infirmity into the emblematic sickness of the age. The madness is in him and he is in the madness.” The title of the final chapter, “Stavrogin,” suggests that “FM” has now become his own sordid character. Here we reach the climax of the novel, when the writer—blocked up to this point—sits down to write: “He unpacks the writing case, sets out his materials.”

His writing, he knows, is a betrayal of all his loved ones: “Perversion: everything and everyone to be turned to another use, to be gripped to him and fall with him.” The kind of book he writes: “I write perversions of the truth. I choose the crooked road and take children into dark places.” As he sits trying to write, a phantom figure, a kind of double, sits opposite him, a figure “with the cold and massive indifference of stone.” I assume that this could be the devil himself on a brief visit, as he visits Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s final novel. Or, more likely, it is his own character, the embodiment of evil, Stavrogin. When “the pen begins to move” what is he writing? The infamous bathhouse scene, “At Tikhon’s,” the chapter too hot to handle, the one that never made it all the way into The Devils.

Then, somehow, that scene does not come off, and “FM” imagines himself as young again, like Pavel, and writing in the empty pages of Pavel’s diary. He titles the first effort, “The Apartment,” and the second “The Child.” What comes out on the page? More perversity. The young Pavel he invents takes pleasure in making love to a young woman he brings back to the apartment, when he knows that a little girl like Matryona is watching. He remembers Svidrigailov [pervert-pedophile character in Crime and Punishment, who ends up committing suicide]: “Women like to be humiliated.” In the second story, “The Child,” he recalls the story he had told Matryona earlier—how Pavel had shown kindness to Maria Lebyadkin in Tver, plagiarizing himself in part from The Devils—and reveals that Pavel’s kindness had really been mockery.

FM leaves the two pages open on the table for Matryona to read. This, he knows, is “an assault upon the innocence of a child.” It also is a way of “trapping God, forcing God to speak.” As if to say, Are you out there anywhere, God? If you are you surely will not allow me to get away with such a despicable business. God, as usual, has nothing to say, but in the ending of The Master of St. Petersburg there is an implication that “FM” has gone as far beyond the pale as possible. Like his own most perverse characters, Stavrogin and Svidrigailov—whom he has become—he will now take the most logical next step: suicide. If we assume that that is how Coetzee’s novel ends, the implication is that FM would die in 1869 and some of his most important works would never be written: including The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov.

The Muddle

In order to arrive at the final chapter, where it appears that “FM” has become a kind of Stavrogin, on the verge of suicide, we must muddle through some improbable action and a plethora of talk. The talk—between interlocutors “FM” and AS, or “FM” and “Nechaev”—is sometimes so excessive that it impedes the action of the novel.

Then there are themes that never quite ring true for me. One of these involves the idea that the father “FM” can somehow bring his dead stepson back by taking his place, being dead in place of him: “I am he and he is me.” This amounts to a kind of fiction writing, abrogating an act from the past (Pavel’s death) by taking on his role in a fiction: “let me be the thinking animal plunging through the air.” In the same vein are passages such as this: “Pavel is above all lonely, and in his loneliness needs to be sung to and comforted, to be reassured that he will not be abandoned at the bottom of the waters.”

Perhaps this unique approach to grieving would work better for me if Dostoevsky had ever touched upon it in his works and life. As it is, I see this as a part of the novel that makes more sense if we ascribe such feelings to Coetzee himself, faced with the death by falling of his own son.

Another problem in the novel is presented by the character of the landlady, Anna Sergeyevna. She is the love interest of the story, but an improbable one. “FM” comes to Petersburg, leaving behind in Dresden his young wife Anna and newborn daughter. Then he immediately begins an affair with this other Anna, who, surprisingly, goes along with him. This despite her being immediately put off by his dark and dire person, and by her sensing that perhaps he is using her—shades of Humbert Humbert in Lolita—to get to her nine-year-old daughter. The matter is further complicated when AS accuses FM of using sex with her to achieve a kind of communion with his dead son. The idea being, I presume, that sexual intercourse, like epilepsy, affords a brief glimpse into a different dimension.

“FM” himself later affirms that this is exactly what he has been trying to do: “She will bring him back. She is a conductress of souls.” And later, “I was sure you would conduct me to Pavel.” At this point the down-to-earth AS must be shaking her head. The imagery of conductress or guide through the Land of the Dead suggests the psychopomp, of whom the most well-known in Russian Orthodoxy is the icon of the Smolensk Hodegetria, painted in 1482 by the master Dionysius and at present in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Hodegetria means “guide” or “conductress” in Greek. Dostoevsky would have known that icon well. Don’t know, however, if Coetzee did. At any rate, this passage in Master strikes me as bizarre. Very late in the novel AS asks FM, “Are you still planning to leave?” You get the feeling that in her heart the question is more like, “Will you ever get lost and leave us alone?”

More rather nonsensical talk near the end of the book. A conversation between AS and FM. “FM: Let me only say, over the past week I have come to realize how much fidelity means to us, to both of us. We have had to recover our fidelity. I am right, am I not? [reader’s reaction here: Duh. What is he talking about?]

“He examines her keenly; but she is waiting for him to say more, waiting to be sure what fidelity means.

FM: I mean, on your side, fidelity to your daughter. And on my side, fidelity to my son. We cannot love until we have their blessing. [reader’s question: what about fidelity to your wife and baby daughter back in Dresden?] Am I right?

“Though he knows she agrees, she will not yet say the word. Against that soft resistance he presses on.

FM: I would like to have a child with you. [reader’s reaction: Huh?!]

“She colours. ‘What nonsense! You have a wife and child already!’

FM: They are of a different family. You are of Pavel’s family, you and Matryona, both of you. I am of Pavel’s family too.

AS: I don’t know what you mean.

Reader: I don’t either, but I know that this scene has taken us beyond the bounds of the bizarre. Especially in the second half of the novel, there are pages pervaded with the nonsensical or the weird. One definition of the word “rhetoric” is that of empty words uttered for their own sake but having no concrete meaning. Just a lot of babble. There are full pages of Coetzee’s book that are rhetoric in that sense.

Does A Writer of Fiction Have Obligations To the Real Fiction Writer He Depicts?

In two separate places “FM” steps aside from the action and imagines himself as a character in a book. “If I were a character in a book” (97) and “I am behaving like a character in a book” (27). Of course, “FM” is a character in a book, Coetzee’s novel. Anyone who has read much about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life realizes that he himself often behaved like a character in one of his own melodramatic novels. Of all the writers in the grand pantheon of Russian literature, Dostoevsky is the one, in fact, whose life is most novelistic.

Most writers don’t do much in life except write—writing is their life. Not Dostoevsky. Almost killed in a mock execution, sent to Siberia as a convict in a penal colony, released from prison but forced to live on in Semipalatinsk (Central Asia), where he engaged in a wild threesome of a love affair that ended when he married his first wife, a hysterical woman right out of one of his novels—and mother of Pavel Isaev, the stepson who shows up transfigured in Coetzee’s novel.

Almost immediately after his first marriage Dostoevsky treated his wife to a full-blown epileptic fit, complete with convulsions on the ground and foaming at the mouth. She had not even known in advance that he was epileptic. The same thing would happen after his second marriage. We could go on and on with this. Addiction to gambling. More crazy scenes. Epilepsy. Poverty. Suffice it to say that the life of Dostoevsky was a huge, sprawling melodramatic novel. But throughout it all FM always maintained somewhere deep inside himself a bedrock of sanity and strength.

Is the “FM” we meet in Coetzee’s novel that same man? Well, yes and no. Coetzee presents an “FM” who in many respects resembles FM. He throws in a few winks at the reader, allusions to the real Dostoevsky’s fictions and characters. AS mentions that she has his first novel, Poor Folk. “It was one of my husband’s favourites.” Nechaev has read Crime and Punishment. “It was that that gave me the idea.” There are at least two allusions to scenes from C and P. In the first of these “FM” goes to the police station, where he thinks “surely he has been here before, in this very ante-room or one like it, and had an attack or a fainting fit! But why is it that he recollects the episode only so dimly? And what has the recollection to do with the smell of fresh paint?”

Not the author, but his character, the unhinged Raskolnikov from C and P has been here before, and he had a fainting fit here. Also in the anteroom sits “a young man in stained housepainter’s overalls.” This alludes to the episode when Raskolnikov commits his murders. He barely avoids being seen by two young house painters at the scene of the crime. Later one of them convinces himself that he had been the murderer, and he goes to the police to confess. Later, when “FM” meets with Nechaev in a Petersburg hovel, Sonya the angelic prostitute from C and P shows up in the ghostly flesh, along with three starving children who are analogous to the Marmeladov children in that novel.

As mentioned above, Maria Lebyadkin and her brother Captain Lebyadkin, characters in FM’s Devils, also have cameo roles in The Master of St. Petersburg. In October and November of 1869, when the action is set, the real FM was back in Dresden, frenetically working on his Eternal Husband, in which one of the characters appears based on Pasha Isaev. AS alludes to this work when she tells “FM,” “You don’t want to become the eternal lodger, after all. Isn’t that the name of a book?” The plot of The Eternal Husband involves a cuckolded husband, whereas in Master the husband, not the wife, is the betrayer.

An interesting omission: there seems to be no mention of, or allusion to the big novel recently completed by Dostoevsky: The Idiot. This is probably because the major themes of the novel—depiction of an almost ideal, saintly man, and the hope for humanity in doctrines of Russian Orthodox Christianity are absent in Coetzee’s novel—which reeks of the perversity and pedophilia that he attributes to FM, but does not show any of FM’s positive side. In discussing Pavel’s diary and other papers, which “FM” has come to claim, the police inspector Maximov remarks as follows: “The prospect that after our decease a stranger will come sniffing through our possessions, opening drawers, breaking seals, reading intimate letters—such would be a painful prospect to any of us, I am sure.”

That, of course, is exactly what any biographer does, and it is what Coetzee has done to the real Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. Does the dead author have any rights left? Unfortunately, not. The dead cannot sue you, no matter what you say about them. Does Coetzee, in distorting the real FM, have any compunctions about what he has done? Has he come to write his book in a spirit of frivolity, knowing little about his subject? Apparently not, since in one of his interviews on line Prof. Coetzee mentions teaching a course on Dostoevsky.

What has Coetzee taken away from the real FM in the way he presents the great writer? A lot. He takes away Dostoevsky’s fervent belief in an afterlife, FM’s almost fanatical insistence that the way of Christ would prevail in the end, and that even the whole world would eventually find redemption by embracing the Russian form of Christianity. About “FM”: “He expects to spend eternity on a river bank with armies of other dead souls, waiting for a barge that will never arrive.” True, Dostoevsky gave such dismal scenes of the afterlife to the imaginations of his most despicable characters—Svidrigailov, Stavrogin, old man Karamazov—but steadily resisted them himself.

Afflicted with epilepsy, as was his creator, Prince Myshkin of The Idiot “is overcome, at the onset of this disease, with the same ecstatic intuition of supernatural plenitude that his creator both cherished as a divine visitation and feared as the harbinger of madness” (Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, p. 316). Coetzee takes away from his “FM” the divine visitation of the aura, but leaves him with the horror and the harbinger of madness. Furthermore, the “FM” of this novel fears that if he begins writing vileness and obscenity will pour out of his soul onto the page. Indeed, at the end of the novel that is exactly what happens. But the real FM, meanwhile, is back in Dresden writing, not blocked, knowing that he, his wife and baby child can avoid starvation only if he can sell his writings. The real FM, back in Dresden, little resembles the madman “FM” of Master, who is weak and degenerate. The real FM, strong throughout it all, went through a life of unimaginable tribulations and never gave up. By age 60, when he died, he was exhausted. And who would not be, given what he had to live with?

The Master of Petersburg gives short shrift to a remarkable woman, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina-Dostoevskaya, who stuck with this difficult man for the duration, bearing him four children. She is almost as ghostly a presence in this book as is Pavel. There are now two Annas in “FM”’s life, and the writer often compares AS favorably to AG, who is “too young” for him. We are supposed to believe that FM had little regard for his young wife or newborn baby, that he could casually start an affair while abroad. Dostoevsky is also portrayed as a whoremonger. Did he actually visit prostitutes during his lifetime? Maybe so, but we have no evidence of this. “FM” is an unfaithful husband. Again, this is a figment of Coetzee’s imagination. No evidence. On his deathbed Dostoevsky said to AG, “Remember, Anna, I have always loved you passionately, and never betrayed you once, not even in thought.” Pasha Isaev also showed up at the deathbed scene in 1881; he was there hoping to scrounge what he could as inheritance.

“FM” had “a voluptuous urge to confess his infidelities to his wife.” Made up, based, apparently, on what we do know: how FM took voluptuous delight in groveling before AG after his gambling losses—something like the drunk Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment, who enjoys being beaten by his wife because he knows he deserves it. Coetzee invents child prostitutes, with whom “FM” has consorted, at home and abroad. Is this fair to the real FM? No. It is egregiously unfair.

Here is Dostoevsky in Dresden, describing his daily routine to his beloved niece Sofya Ivanova, whose family is depicted with affection in his Eternal Husband. His daughter Lyuba (Lyubochka) was exactly three months old on the day he wrote this letter: “I cannot tell you how much I love her . . . The little girl is healthy, precocious, she listens when I sing to her and laughs all the time; she is a quiet child, not capricious” (cited in Frank, The Miraculous Years, p. 371). Can you imagine the “FM” of Master writing such a letter? But along with almost everything else positive about Dostoevsky, his love for his children is taken away from him in Coetzee’s novel.

Worst of all is that Coetzee, in creating his portrayal of FM as child molester, pedophile, pervert, perpetuates the old canard that began with Nikolai Strakhov’s letter to Lev Tolstoy in 1883. Dostoevsky was long dead before the letter finally came to light; he was not there to defend himself. Strakhov, an old friend of the family, who often dined with the Dostoevskys, was dead by then as well (he died in 1896), but AG, who was furious over the canard in the letter, said she only wished she could get to him and slap his face.

In the letter Strakhov described Dostoevsky as a consistently unpleasant person, who, e.g., loved to bait waiters in German restaurants. Then he went on to report that he had once been told that FM “had boasted of having . . . a little girl in a bathhouse, delivered over to him by her governess.” The original source for the story, Viskovatov, claiming to have heard it from FM’s mouth, is highly unreliable—he was not a close friend of FM, and the latter spoke of him with casual irony. No fair-minded critic these days gives the tale any credence.

Okay, I’ll concede that Fyodor Dostoevsky must have been a difficult man. He was afflicted with nervous illnesses and epilepsy most of his life. Highly irritable, opinionated, xenophobic, anti-Semitic. Certainly he wrote so much sickness into his fictions because he had a keen sense of sickness within himself. Meet him on the street and no way you’ll take him for Mother Teresa. But to make him into a pedophile. That’s simply unfair. Notwithstanding that, like any piece of juicy gossip, the Strakhov story refuses to die. What an unfortunate thing that Coetzee has chosen, apparently, to believe this nonsense and has made it the basis for his depiction of FM in such unflattering terms.

In today’s atmosphere of political correctness taken to extremes, of eager accusers and “cancel culture,” plenty of people will be all too ready to accept Coetzee’s negative portrayal of a great writer. After all, “if you write about one, then you must be one.” These days you are guilty of pedophilia until proven innocent. Already there have been calls for the head of Vladimir Nabokov, who took up Dostoevsky’s theme of pedophilia in Lolita and other works of fiction. Nabokov is also dead and unable to defend himself. And what about Coetzee as well? Could not the self-appointed arbiters of proper speech and thought—using the (il)logic of their pinbrains—assail him as well? Here’s a writer, they may say, who finds the subject of pedophilia too interesting by half. “If he writes about pedophilia, is he not immediately suspect of engaging in pedophilia?”

One positive thing: the kind of leftwing new fascism embodied in such movements to suppress free speech and thought (“cancel culture”)—as well as the unhealthy mania for the subject of pedophilia that flourishes in the U.S.—are so far largely absent in Russia. Which means that the year 2021, the two-hundredth anniversary of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s birth, can be celebrated with enthusiasm in his homeland.

U.R. Bowie, author of Looking Good

Looking Good (The Collected Works of U.R. Bowie Book 16) – Kindle edition by Bowie, U.R., Skinner, Richard . Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @

2 thoughts on “The Master of Petersburg, by J.M. Coetzee

  1. It’s disappointing to learn that Coetzee has produced a bad book. Tell me, if Coetzee had written a fiction about a made-up Russian writer whose name was not FMD, would the book be worth reading?

    • I thought about this as well. He could have written a book about a writer much like Dostoevsky, but clearly something of an alter ego of Dostoevsky, not the man himself. In that case, I would not be so opposed to the way he makes his writer into a pedophile. But the FMD in the book is clearly Dostoevsky himself. His fictional works are alluded to, even mentioned outright. Only a few facts and characters are changed, or fictionalized. In a way what has happened here is the same thing that happens in biography. As soon as the biographer starts writing about his subject he is, in a sense, already creating a new person. It’s somehow inevitable. But how would you like a biography written about you, in which you are portrayed as a pervert?

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