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, any great writer in the end is himself powerless, betrayed from within by his own uncertainties and connivances.

With whom does he connive? With the very people, of course, whose influence he most fears and rejects, and against whom he is writing. In this case the terrible figure is that of Nechaev, the real-life model for the demonic young Pyotr Verkhovensky, villain of the novel which the Dostoevsky of Coetzee’s book will soon be writing, and whose title, Besy, has been variously translated as The Possessed, or The Devils, or most recently and accurately, Demons. The real Nechaev was a terrorist intellectual who, either directly or through his malign influence over his fellow conspirators, committed several murders in the tsarist Russia of the late 1860s and 1870s, most notably that of a student who was suspected of taking a Christian attitude, backsliding from the revolutionary cause, and who appears in Demons under the name of Shatov, from a Russian verb meaning wavering, uncertain, or, by extension, unconvinced.

In Coetzee’s novel Dostoevsky returns in 1869 from Dresden at the news of the sudden and untimely death of his stepson Pavel. Pavel has fallen from a tower on one of the St. Petersburg quays—was it an accident? Was he pushed by the Tsar’s secret police, as the terrorist fraternity have claimed? Or were the terrorists responsible, among them Nachaev himself, with whom Pavel may or may not have had a secret connection? All is suitably ambiguous and uncertain; and the author of the novel reveals his hand, perhaps prematurely, in stressing from the outset the doubleness, or tripleness, in the soul of the tormented author who has returned to Russia. Doubles are Dostoevsky’s thing: he has written a novel with that very title.

He has also, of course, written a novel called Crime and Punishment, in which the hero Raskolnikov seeks redemption in suffering in a Siberian prison for his murder of an old money-lender, and is redeemed by the Christ-like love of the heroine, Sonya. When Dostoevsky the writer meets Nechaev, the terrorist ironically reminds him of this, indeed flings it in his face, wickedly implying that all novelists only invent things like suffering and redemption for artistic purposes, and to edify their readers. The confrontation between Dostoevsky and Nechaev, the subversive whom he will subsequently triumph over and, as it were, emasculate on paper in his novel Demons, is one of the most powerful scenes in Coetzee’s novel. Nechaev baits the writer by suggesting he make a statement, in the manner of literary men, any statement he pleases, and the conspirators will print it word for word on their little “Albion-of-Birmingham” printing press.


“My statement?” he [the Dostoevsky character] says.

“Yes, your statement. Whatever statement you choose to make. You can write it here and now, it will save time.”

“And what if I choose to tell the truth?”

“Whatever you write we will distribute, I promise.”

“The truth may be more than a hand-press can cope with.”

“Leave him alone.” The voice comes from the other man, still poring over the text in front of him. “He’s a writer, he doesn’t work like that.”

“How does he work then?”

“Writers have their own rules. They can’t work with people looking over their shoulders.”

“Then they should learn new rules. Privacy is a luxury we can do without. People don’t need privacy.”

Now that he has an audience, Nechaev has gone back to his old manner. As for him [Dostoevsky], he is sick and tired of these callow provocations. “I must go,” he says again.

Almost as if he were in collusion with Nechaev, everything has been calculated by Coetzee to reduce Dostoevsky as a man—not a “master,” but a real man living in the real world of St. Petersburg—to total discomfiture. He is put to shame by the suffering of the wretched woman who is landlady of the foul cellar where Nechaev lives; by the questioning of the doltish girl who adores Nechaev and has supplied another girl, a fellow conspirator who is under arrest, with poison on Nechaev’s orders. These are, so to speak, living and breathing inhabitants of St. Petersburg, and not the “suffering” characters whom Dostoevsky will invent and put into his novels.

But he is shamed most of all by Nechaev’s easy victory in argument, and in the duel of wits that takes place between them.

As if sensing his weakness, Nechaev pounces, worrying him like a dog. “Eighteen centuries have passed since God’s age, nearly nineteen! We are on the brink of a new age where we are free to think any thought. There is nothing we can’t think! Surely you know that. You must know it—it’s what Raskolnikov said in your own book before he fell ill!”

“You are mad, you don’t know how to read,” he [Dostoevsky] mutters. But he has lost, and he knows it. He has lost because, in this debate, he does not believe himself. And he does not believe himself because he has lost. Everything is collapsing: logic, reason. He stares at Nechaev and sees only a crystal winking in the light of the desert, self-enclosed, impregnable.

“Be careful,” says Nechaev, wagging a finger meaningfully. “Be careful what words you use about me. I am of Russia: when you say I am mad, you say Russia is mad.”

Nechaev has got him, because whatever truth the writer utters can be twisted by the terrorists to their own purposes and the author will necessarily collude with the terrorists just by writing for them and about them. The irony in the fact that “writers have their own rules,” and can only tell men like Nechaev that they “don’t know how to read,” graphically expresses the helplessness of Dostoevsky the actual man, who now longs above all to escape from this all too real world from which he will take refuge, it is implied, by reinventing it in his next novel, Demons. In the meanwhile he longs above all to get away from “the maelstrom of St. Petersburg.”

Dresden beckons like an atoll of peace—Dresden, his wife, his books and papers, and the hundred small comforts that make up home, not least among them the pleasure of fresh underwear.

At the end of the book we see Dostoevsky sitting down to write Demons.

It is of course not without significance that Coetzee has written perspicaciously and with authority on the latest academic theories about how novels are read and written; or that, as a teacher of literature, he may well be thinking of the remark Conrad made off the cuff about his own African novel, Heart of Darkness. He had written it, said Conrad, in order to get rid of having experienced it. By implication he had been shamed not only by the horror of what he had seen but by the ignoble part he felt he had played in it, and by his covert desire to conquer and put it behind him by writing the novel.


Writing of this sort might be seen as itself a form of confession, and yet Coetzee seems not at all sure about that. In an interview reprinted in Doubling the Point, his book of essays and interviews headed “Autobiography and Confession,” he discusses the kind of interest he had in Dostoevsky and in the question of the novelist’s ambiguous attitude to his subject matter.

Against the endlessness of skepticism Dostoevsky poses the closure not of confession but of absolution and therefore of the intervention of grace in the world. In that sense Dostoevsky is not a psychological novelist at all: he is finally not interested in the psyche, which he sees as an arena of game-playing…. To the extent that I am taken as a political novelist, it may be because I take it as given that people must be treated as fully responsible beings: psychology is no excuse. Politics, in its wise stupidity, is at one with religion here: one man, one soul: no half-measures.

These are wise words. And yet it remains true that in this novel, as opposed to his essays and theoretical writings, and indeed to his earlier novels with a South African background, Coetzee is very much interested, as if by necessity, in individual psychology, and in the psychology of the double or triple man like Dostoevsky, whose attitude to everything he deals with artistically remains profoundly ambiguous. In order to overcome Nechaev on paper, and turn him into his own invented character Pyotr Verkhovensky, he must endow him with the same qualities that he himself possesses. The author’s own secret shamelessness must become open in the character he is creating. Dostoevsky cannot afford to let Nechaev/Verkhovensky appear as a simple and principled, if ruthless and dedicated, fanatic. He must behave (and in Demons does behave) as Saint Augustine tells us, in Book II of his Confessions, that he did when he and his young friends stole some pears “for the pleasure of committing a forbidden act…having no inducement to the evil but the evil itself.”

Augustine is quoted in an essay of 1985 from Doubling the Point called “Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky.” Coetzee points out that confession on the orthodox Christian pattern should be followed by penitence and absolution; but he suggests that for such a writer as Dostoevsky the act of writing is itself the bestowal of absolution, however equivocally, by the writer himself. At the end of The Master of Petersburg Nechaev, soon to be arrested, is moving around the city in disguise, and Dostoevsky, unable to establish what killed Pavel, has escaped back into writing, even though the process “tastes like gall,” and makes him feel that “he has betrayed everyone.” The child of Pavel’s exlandlady, with whom Dostoevsky has developed a fixated quasi-sexual relation, puts the matter naively by wondering that authors get paid “lots of money for writing books,” and even before he begins to write the new novel, Coetzee’s Dostoevsky begins to feel “that he had to give up his soul in return.” But to quote again from the 1985 essay, “until the source from which the shameful act sprang is confronted, the self can have no rest.”

The irony of which Coetzee seems to be aware, but Dostoevsky may not have been, is that the real Nechaev was certainly himself a double agent, subsidized in secret by the Tsar’s police. Dostoevsky may well have intuited this. But the crudity of that simple form of duplicity would have had no appeal to the artist who wrote Demons. Equally alien to such an artist would be Coetzee’s use of another, rather obvious, irony, which makes the tormented novelist pine for the order and comfort of Germany: petit bourgeois order and comfort being just the things that the “Russian” Dostoevsky felt that he most despised. But this is as much as to say that Coetzee the novelist has bravely put himself in the impossible position of writing about a novelist who himself wrote his novels in quite a different dimension. Instead of the Dostoevskian polydrama Coetzee gives us a sharp, meticulously brooded-on analysis—an analysis of the genesis of a novel—that has to make its points, and then adhere to them. He has to follow Freud in positing that the repressed irrational, the fundamental dishonesty of the human soul, is yet “accessible to the language of rationality.”

The phrase comes from another essay in Doubling the Point, an essay on the Austrian novelist Robert Musil. It gives the key, in a certain sense, to the methods on which all of Coetzee’s fiction is based, and it shows the kind of intelligence he has brought to the problems he faces in them. A fellow countryman of Freud, Musil is famous for his lengthy unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities, in which he draws a continuous distinction between what is rational and predictable in human behavior, and what he calls “the other condition,” in which anything goes. Musil, says Coetzee, draws a line between the province of Wissenschaft, or science, and the province of Dichtung, which is poetry; and it is as a Dichter that he sets out to explore the submerged “other condition.”

No doubt Coetzee’s profound sympathy with Musil, as with Dostoevsky, would have made him wish to follow their example in his own writing of fiction, but the academic precision of his own creative intelligence seems to preclude this. Thus The Master of Petersburg remains an admirably imaginative critical commentary by one political novelist about another, rather than a novel in its own right. It is a fascinating book for all that, not least for the light that it sheds upon the problems of the novelist who writes about South Africa, and the tyranny of its history. About such a question Coetzee is too clear-sighted not to be ambivalent. For is it not the case that, as with Conrad and Dostoevsky, the novelist who writes about a terrible political situation is involuntarily freeing himself in the process from the darkness and the impossible complexity which it presents?

In a dialogue with Coetzee on “Autobiography and Confession” his editor, David Attwell, certainly suggests something of the kind. He gives as an example the writer’s last novel about South Africa, Age of Iron, which came out three years ago. Its heroine, who is dying, finds herself regarding death as both escape and absolution from the seemingly hopeless politics brought about by the States of Emergency in South Africa. South Africa, like Russia, was in the grip of a historical tyranny which had forced this heroine to speak out, as it had compelled novelists like Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer to write the kinds of novels they have written.

But Coetzee’s heroine feels that the imminence of death will not only release her from the compulsions of the historical situation in which she finds herself, but permit her for a time to enter again the world of the purely individual. It is toward that world which Coetzee himself seems to be turning in composing this study of the past. The character and individuality of Dostoevsky’s novels are, in their own way, a gift of absolution from the past. Thus the novel need not just seek to interpret history, but in its own terms can overcome history’s legacy, showing how Musil’s “other condition” is within the novel and its reader, as it is within the novel’s own creative power. A masterwork so thoughtfully if abstractly conceived as The Master of Petersburg deserves to be read today along with the admirable new translation of Dostoevsky’s Demons by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The two throw light on each other, and the new novel has much to suggest to us about the way in which the older masterpiece might have been written.

This Issue

November 17, 1994