The Master of Petersburg
Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews
A year or so ago, talking to the leading contenders for a prestigious new fiction prize awarded in Moscow, I was struck by the wry defeatism displayed by writers who had been the most successful. One of them remarked: “We Russian novelists cannot do without the tyranny of history any more than Dostoevsky could do without God. And we haven’t learnt the Western trick of being interested in individuals for their own sake.” I said I thought Western novelists were no longer much interested in individuals for their own sake, and added that Tolstoy had surely been the grand master of this particular literary field. He agreed, but said that Tolstoy was of no possible use now to a Russian writer, as the weakness of Solzhenitsyn’s recent work had so clearly demonstrated; and, moreover, that both he and Tolstoy had relied on Russian history to the point of identifying the novel with it. Without the total domination of the first the second could not exist.
I recalled this conversation while reading J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, The Master of Petersburg. The master is Dostoevsky, and Coetzee’s intention seems to have been to analyze the great writer’s psyche in fictional terms, rather as literary critics once used to analyze “character” in their surveys of the nineteenth-century novel or of Shakespeare’s plays. Coetzee, a brilliantly analytical writer, seems to have decided, at least for the moment, to abandon history in the Russian, or indeed the South African, sense—history, that is, as an essentially dynamic and ever-present process—in favor of history as the past, and thus as the sphere in which “character” as a literary concept is situated.
So Dostoevsky becomes a character from the past in Coetzee’s novel, as if he were a character in one of his own novels; for that seems to be the effect that the author is aiming at. And in one way he is remarkably successful, combining a deeply pondered imaginative sympathy with the professional and academic sharpness one would expect of a novelist who is also a professor of general and comparative literature. The effect is not so unlike that achieved by Jay Parini—also an academic—in his excellent short novel The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year. And yet of course Dostoevsky’s life, and his inner psychology and motivations, are far more complex and more mysterious than Tolstoy’s, and fundamentally more unknowable, as well as indefinable. Coetzee duly pays tribute to their unknowable nature, but he manages to suggest the certain and yet disconcerting truth that even a very great novelist like Dostoevsky was not only timid and diffident about his writing, and how to write, but that he was quite simply abashed—when it came to the point—by men of action and politics who were ruthless and determined, and who knew how to get what they wanted. For no matter how powerful and influential his voice may be …