Monday, February 15, 2010

J M Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg, 1994

My love of art and the trajectory of my life’s work on still and moving images notwithstanding, I often feel as though my great challenge is to find the novel that will change the way I see the world, the novel that will live with me for years to come. And even though it is rare to find that needle in a haystack that will completely alter my reality, every so often I find a piece of fiction that comes close to satiating my voracious appetite for literature. J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is one such piece of literature. It was a novel that did not review well when it was first published, it is, afterall, esoteric, slow and changes course at the end in a way that disturbs the narrative force. The narrative tapers off, and doesn’t maintain its melancholic brooding across its 250 pages. Still, until it loses its momentum (or lack there of) The Master of Petersburg is compelling.

Lover that I am of everything Russian, and enamored as I am of Dostoyevsky, Coetzee’s book is both already off to a good start, and setting the bar high for a reader like me. Coetzee is a writer who is interested in the process of writing, but unlike most of the self-obsessed navel gazing that goes on in contemporary fiction, Coetzee writes about writing, the status of writing and the identity of being a writer in a way that challenges the very form of his literature. The so-called master of Petersburg is in fact Dostoyevsky who has come to St Petersburg to inquire into the death of his beloved stepson, Pavel. While Dostoyevsky, both the historical and the fictional figure, is the impetus of Coetzee’s book, the Russian master’s writing is also the style into which Coetzee places his own writerly identity. And so from the opening pages we are plunged into the melancholic world of a Dostoyevsky novel, asked to suffer the burdens, the physical impoverishment and the spiritual search of his characters. Fyodor Ilyavich himself, and stepson’s landlady Anna Sergeyevna with whom he shares a passionate, yet fraught, relationship, think, feel and behave as though they have stepped out of Crime and Punishment. In addition, their same Spartan living quarters have all but the yellowing wallpaper of Raskolnikov’s room. The dark Fyodor Ilyavich as he journeys into self, and reveals his motivation as a writer via confrontation with grief for his stepson could be the same process of spiritual questioning undertaken by the brothers Karamazov. And at the very same time that Coetzee’s fictional world mimics that of Dostoyevsky’s, the biography of the two become intertwined, imperceptibly: Coetzee’s son died at twenty-three from a falling accident, but Dostoyevsky’s did not. To imitate another writer, from another period, who writes in another language, to capture all of the desolation and torment that is the signature of this one writer only, and to do all of this with a creative subtlety that produces a uniqueness contemporary fiction, is quite an achievement.

There are of course differences from Dostoyevsky’s worlds. For The Master of Petersburg, spiritual survival comes in the form of sexual encounter, the image of late Tzarist St Petersburg in which totalitarianism is on the brink of disintegration is played out with a haste and given prominence in a way it would not be in Dostoyevsky. The impending revolution is filtered through a group of young idealists lead by the nihilist, irrational and violent Nachaev who appears as a more modern construction, even though he is based on the historical figure. And then there is the contemplation of the role of the writer in this nervous political world, and the process of writing independent of it. And so, the meobius strip continues, as I am reminded that, once again, it is only the existence of Dostoyevsky’s fictional worlds before him that enables Coetzee to be singularly creative through repetition.

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