The master of Petersburg

Par David COAD
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Texte intégral

1J. M. Coetzee's seventh novel, The Master of Petersburg1 returns us to the postmodern mode already successfully explored in Foe. The two novels contain marked similarities : they are set in the past (Foe in the eighteenth-century, The Master in 1869) ; both are about writers and writing (Defoe gives way to Dostoevsky) ; both concentrate on post-structuralist themes – the debt to Hegel, Heidegger and Derrida is noticeable ; both fall into the category of what Linda Hutcheon in A Poetics of Postmodernism calls "historiographic metafiction."2 The two novels are an ironic look at the past in light of the present.

2For Hutcheon, postmodernism is resolutely historical, inescapably political. This is certainly the case in Coetzee's latest novel. It is set in a two-month period, from October to November 1869, in Petersburg, the year of the famous Nechaev case. A young anarchist, nihilist student, Nechaev, and his gang of five were involved in insurrection against the State, when one of the five, Ivanov, was murdered by Nechaev. So shocked was Dostoevsky when he read about this fait divers in exile in Dresden, that he decided to incorporate it into the novel he was already writing, provisionally called The Atheist, but which eventually turned into The Devils. Coetzee, using his poetic licence, and changing historical reality to suit his artistic purpose, as in Foe, combines historical fact and fiction. He imagines Dostoevsky right at the heart of the Nechaev conspiracy by having the murdered conspirator be Dostoevsky's stepson, Pavel Isaev. The novel opens with the return of the Russian novelist to Petersburg in order to solve the mystery of Pavel's sudden death. He refuses to believe the official explanation of suicide.

3Coetzee is working with three layers of significance in The Master of Petersburg and confronting two discourses (historical and novelistic) : historic reality (Nechaev and Ivanov) ; fictionalised historical reality (Dostoevsky and Pavel) ; novelistic reality (Dostoevsky's version of the case in The Devils where Shatov is murdered by Verkhovensky). He complicates the latter by evoking and superimposing other characters from Dostoevsky's novels : the Lebyatkins, Kirilov and Stavrogin from The Devils, Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. By forcing historical and novelistic reality to cohabit and intermix, Coetzee raises the problems of how we can know the past, what constitutes the difference between these two discourses, whilst never losing from sight the essential politicising nature of language as a means of reaching the truth.

4The problem of loss and mourning in The Master – the novel can be seen as the lament of a father for his lost son – is touchingly explored by an author who understands what is "too enormous to be borne."(20). What could have veered towards the sentimental and the pathetic remains moving, while suggesting the tragedy of a private loss. We need to inscribe Pavel's disappearance into a wider epistemological debate concerning the metaphysics of absence. Pavel is the great absence in the novel. Each chapter recounts Dostoevsky's attempts to fill this human gap. His various endeavours to "get to the facts" are really means of substituting meaning where there is none, of finding presence and truth.

5One path which the stepfather follows is to stay in Pavel's room occupied just before his death. He meets Pavel's former landlady, Anna Sergeyevna, a widow in her mid-thirties who lives with her adolescent daughter, Matryona. The novelist, in his forty-ninth year, is moved by lust to possess both mother and daughter since they were the last women to be with Pavel. We are reminded of scenes in Waiting for the Barbarians when the Magistrate couples with a prostitute at the inn, as well as the scene when he penetrates the barbarian girl in the middle of the novel. Sex in Coetzee is nearly always dissatisfying, somewhat bestial and ritualistic. The Master is no exception. Anna repeatedly sleeps with the novelist through pity ; Dostoevsky, like the Magistrate, is simply moved by lust. The nubile Matryona, an ex-student of Pavel, is forced to become a voyeuse. The depraved Nechaev suggests child prostitution to the novelist who is already experienced in this domain. This is obviously something which fascinates Coetzee. Having sex, or fantasising about having sex with Anna and Matryona is one means of trying to bring back Pavel. The stepfather is attempting to replace Pavel by assuming the role of seducer. This is why he puts on Pavel's white suit. There is substitution and confusion, "Because I am he. Because he is I"(53), a desire to have been taken instead. But sex fails as a means of alleviating the loss.

6Since Pavel's death took place in a political context, another means of getting to the truth of the matter is to retrieve from the police Pavel's confiscated effects as well as fraternising with the People's Vengeance, headed by the atheist Nechaev. Interviews with the judicial investigator, Maximov, and encounters with Nechaev leave Dostoevsky in a powerless, indecisive state of suspicion towards both "sides". The authorities are unhelpful, inquisitorial, unsympathetic, bent on involving Dostoevsky in the hit-list of conspirators. The novelist is led into the netherworld of disguise, undercover insurrection and amorality of the nihilists. Coetzee, like Dostoevsky, suggests that the latter are possessed by the devil, pervaded by evil. The distraught father fails to find a truthful explanation for Pavel's death in these structures of crime.

7At the end of the novel, the novelist is given his dead son's papers : a diary, letters, a story written by Pavel. Here Coetzee introduces the notion of confessional literature as a means of gaining access to the soul. By having the father read his dead son's papers as a closure to the novel, and entitling the final chapter "Stavrogin", Coetzee parodies Stavrogin's Confession, refused by the historic Dostoevsky's editors, and usually put at the end of The Devils. Perhaps here the grieved father will find what Coetzee in his article "Confession and Double Thoughts" calls, "the forms of stirrings of the heart, intimations of the unacknowledged, utterances of the inner self' ? 3 All the novel is narrated in the present tense, as in Waiting for the Barbarians. This literary technique gives a heightened awareness of the self's presence to the self. We come to see at the end of The Master of Petersburg that in trying to evoke Pavel's spirit, in trying to gather and conserve memories, Dostoevsky is in fact mourning for himself. The present tense insists on the immediacy and urgency of such a task. We take leave of the Master lost, sick, calling on God to manifest himself, writing. Poetry may after all bring back that which is lost.


1 All references are to J.M. COETZEE, The Master of Petersburg, London, Seeker & Warburg, 1994.

2 Linda HUTCHEON,A Poetics of Postmodernism : History, Theory, Fiction, New York, Routledge, 1991, 5.

3  J. M. COETZEE, Doubling the Point : Essays and Interviews, ed. David Attwell, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1992, 281.

Pour citer ce document

Par David COAD, «The master of Petersburg», Cahiers FoReLLIS - Formes et Représentations en Linguistique, Littérature et dans les arts de l'Image et de la Scène [En ligne], Archives (1993-2001), J. M. Coetzee, mis à jour le : 28/05/2013, URL :