Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee (3/5)

First published: 1994
Page count: 250

The back says: The Master of Petersburg is Dostoevsky, and the events described are both the background to and the subject of The Devils. In 1869 he returned secretly to Petersburg just as the police were rounding up the Nechaev gang, a student anarchist movement notorious for having murdered one of its own members... Now Coetzee has insinuated himself into the cracks between the known facts and the fiction, to produce a stunning account of the relation of writers to events. He has also written a moving account of a father’s painful adjustment to the death of his son...
I say: I have this habit of not reading the synopsis of books before starting to read them because I want to be surprised. Therefore, I had no idea what The Master of Petersburg was about when I started reading it, however, it became clear after a few pages that it was about Dostoevsky and the murder that I had previously read about in The Devils.

Yay, for my having read Dostoevsky’s novel prior to this one as it adds another dimension.
Coetzee’s writing in this novel is very sparse and often feels like a pale imitation of Dostoevsky. He is, after all, trying to write as the man, but it feels coerced and insincere. I don’t know much about Dostoevsky’s personal life, nor am I very interested in it, as I fear that reading about him will affect my views on his writing. So, I can’t really comment on how authentic his voice is, but he does come off as a little bit dense.

Dostoevsky travels back to Petersburg to collect the things his son, who is believed to have committed suicide, left behind. However, when he arrives he gets caught up in his grief and an obsession with his son’s landlady and daughter. Dostoevsky soon finds out that his son was a part of an anarchist movement and explores the possibility that they murdered him.
The parts that I enjoyed the most were the ones describing and depicting Dostoevsky’s grief over his son. It becomes clear as the story unfolds that they had a strained relationship, and the regret of losing someone you barely took the chance to know is palpable.

What I had more trouble with was the storyline about the anarchist students that Dostoevsky encountered when trying to unearth what really happened to his son. I realise that this is the starting point of the story that Coetzee decided to flesh out, but few elements were believable. There are a few twists at the end that I saw coming quite early on, but still brought a deeper layer to the novel.
This is the second book I’ve read about Coetzee, and although I may be unwilling to admit it, perhaps I am a tad more sensitive about the picture I’ve created of my Dostoevsky.

3/5 because it is what it is and, sadly, not much more.

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