McGrath on Coetzee's Master of Petersburg

J. M. Coetzee imagines the life of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky
J. M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg
In a 1990s review for the New York Times, Patrick McGrath grapples with The Master of Petersburg, J. M. Coetzee's bleak re-imagining of the life of Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
A ferociously bleak sense of human isolation has characterized the work of the South African writer J. M. Coetzee. In each of his novels he has created figures who stand starkly silhouetted against a vast, harsh landscape and an equally harsh political system; they are belittled and dehumanized by both. His prime concern has been with survival, spiritual and physical, the scraping of meaning and sustenance from the most hostile of environments. There is no comfort to be had from this experience; for Mr. Coetzee's characters, to be conscious is to suffer.

That theme is Dostoyevskian, and in his strong, strange seventh novel, The Master of Petersburg, Mr. Coetzee has gone directly to the source. He has imagined Dostoyevsky returning to St. Petersburg from Dresden after the death of a stepson, Pavel. It is Mr. Coetzee's grimmest book yet, and suggests a new degree of darkness in an outlook that has yet to find much to celebrate in the human condition. The backdrop that here casts its brooding shadow over the characters is of course Russia. And like the South Africa that has provided the setting of most of his novels, this is a Russia poised on the brink of upheaval.

In a sense, Mr. Coetzee has written of Russia before. Waiting for the Barbarians, a novel published in 1980, is set in a garrison town on the border of a nameless empire apparently threatened by barbarian incursions from the north. It has a definite Central Asian feeling, with the distinct suggestion of Mongol hordes massing for pillage. The relevance of this political allegory to apartheid-era South Africa, and the increasingly vicious response of a doomed regime to what it perceives as the enemy at its gates, is clear at once. But what gives the story its universality is the inspired simplicity of the central image, that of a border region between the known and the unknown, and the associated human tendency to demonize what we do not know and then attack the demons. [Read more]

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