Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee


The protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is already a famous writer, at the height of his success, but this is not a story of success. The Dostoevsky presented here is a human character beset by troubles. A gambler close to bankruptcy, he is drawn back to Petersburg from his home in Dresden, despite the threat of being caught by his various creditors, because of the death in mysterious circumstances of his stepson Pavel. We see a man in turmoil, struggling to manage his emotions or come to any understanding of the situation in which he has found himself. His time in Petersburg which, despite the danger of exposure, he keeps extending, is spent with four key characters: Anna Sergeyevna, the landlady with whom his son, and now Dostoevsky himself, has lodged; Anna’s Grushenka-like daughter, Matryona, at once ingenue and coquette; Maximov, the police commissar, bearing a resemblance to Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment as he probes Dostoevsky for details of Pavel’s life and beliefs; and the anarchist Nechaev, in whose organisation Pavel had become embroiled before his death.

Thus, it is clear that Coetzee is establishing a Dostoevskian drama around Dostoevsky. Each of the characters could have stepped out of one of his novels, including the great master himself, who is presented here as a conflation of Ivan, Mitya and Alyosha Karamazov, a good man tortured by his failings, whose instinctive reaction is to do good but whose weaknesses compromise his actions. Good, but weak; spiritual, but tempted: this could stand as a summary of Dostoevsky’s perception of man, and it is thus that he, himself, is presented here, the writer being used by Coetzee to give shape to his writing. It is a remarkably bold conceit, and Coetzee pulls it off. It is an extraordinary piece of fiction.

That is not to say it is an easy read. It is far from it. There is a relentless melancholy surrounding the drama that Dostoevsky himself would have admired. All that is missing, perhaps, is the anger of the Underground Man or Raskolnikov or Ivan Karamazov. That role could, perhaps, have been performed by the anarchist Nechaev, but he is the weakest of the ensemble here, a less palpably real human being than Anna or Maximov or the troubled Dostoevsky. He is the Underground Man before repulsion against himself has exerted its cancerous hold, or Raskolnikov before he first picks up the axe, and as such he feels unfinished, par-boiled, as though the radical political and social beliefs have been poured into him, but the psychological outcomes have not yet been fully explored. And so the novel progresses through a sea of regret and longing and unhappiness, following Dostoevsky’s wretched attempts to reconcile himself with his life.

In all this, of course, it is difficult to avoid the undercurrents of spirituality and societal change which also pulse through Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. There is a stifling sense of loneliness and disconnection surrounding his characters, caused partly by a society rupturing as it evolves into a new, secular, dehumanised era. The fullest articulation of Dostoevsky’s philosophical outlook is the Underground Man, in whom Dostoevsky invested all his disgust and distaste for the loss of spirituality that modernity was bringing. It is through him that we see Dostoevsky’s revulsion toward liberalism, secularism, socialism or social democracy. It is through him that we glimpse the horror that Dostoevsky foresaw in such a radical future. This is the point where Dostoevsky loses me, that juncture between the personal and the societal. His insight into the individual human psyche is profound, but the way that he uses this to inform a vision of society that is wracked and broken leaves me cold. His insistence on the suffering that is the lot of man is skewed by a spirituality that treasures transcendence to such an extent it brutalises any existence that comes before it. There is a wilful refusal to recognise beauty. That is demonstrated most clearly in Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky’s most unbalanced work, but it is evident throughout his oeuvre, and it is evident, too, in Coetzee’s recreation of a Dostoevskian world. There is much darkness, much pain, much that is cold and austere and untouchable. Warmth is banished. Life may sometimes be brutal, but living is not: the individual experience cannot stand as a projection of humanity.

The narrative of The Master of Petersburg revolves around the death of Pavel. At first, Dostoevsky is told it was suicide, but Nechaev tells him it was state murder. Enquiring after Pavel’s possessions, Dostoevsky confronts the police commissar Maximov, who tells him that Pavel was involved with Nechaev’s anarchist sect and among his papers was a list of people who were to be assassinated. As Dostoevsky tries to unravel what happened, he is beset by memories of his stepson, by guilt over their relationship, by the anger towards him which is expressed in Pavel’s diaries. His relationships take diverging turns – he ends up in a ‘fiery’ liaison with the volatile Anna, and finds that he has been tricked by Nechaev. Even while making love to Anna, he is beset by erotic thoughts of her adolescent daughter, Matryona. Still, he seeks the truth about Pavel’s death because only through doing that can he find any sense of equanimity. All of this is finely – if grimly – told. It’s hardly an enjoyable read, but it remains gripping.

It jars only when Coetzee uses his narrative to ruminate on writers and writing. As the novel proceeds it increasingly turns on Dostoevsky the writer, and the process of writing, and the impact this can have. Coetzee, of course, has taken a distinctly post-modern turn in his later fiction, becoming a character in his own works, experiencing his own ur-reality, and perhaps the genesis of his ruminations on this can be seen in The Master of Petersburg. We have a writer – Coetzee – writing about a writer – Dostoevsky – writing about the impact of writing. For me, it intrudes into the main thrust of the narrative, becomes a side-issue which, through its distraction, weakens the impact of what Coetzee has attempted to portray.

The Master of Petersburg is a difficult novel. It probably requires multiple readings, although I would doubt that any but the most confirmed Coetzeeans would afford it such time. There is much to admire in a complex study of a complex man. I leave the book feeling no closer to a man who simultaneously fascinates and repels me.

1 comment:

Ken Berke said...

Much enjoyed your comments. The novel engaged me, but I'm happy to be finished with it. As you say, it's not easy to read, and it's an unlikely re-read.