I was most of the way through this when I learnt that Coetzee's own son died aged Twenty-three shortly before the writing of The Master of Petersburg. The novel's protagonist is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, gone for Petersburg to collect the effects of his son- an apparent suicide. It's a dark novel, written in Coetzee's typically compact, incisive manner. It's not an easy read, simply because Coetzee never lets up: the novel is about a great writer overcome with grief, overcome with a need to assemble some coherence from the conflicting theories surrounding his son's death. As a novel in it's own right it is compelling, deeply moving and indelible. As an essay on the great Russian writer, on the people and the times his works portrayed, it is an exemplary and unforgettable piece of writing. The grief, the compact pain which floods across these pages, is a perfect partner to the life and work of Dostoyevsky.
Dostoyevsky's novels, particularly The Devils- a work which is intrinsically bound to Coetzee's own- give us some of the most complex and tumultuous characters in all of literature. The revolutionary Russian youth examined in Master of Petersburg are the embodiment of all the painful confusion Dostoyevsky faced. It's a youth disgusted with the complacency of their elders, a youth bent on destruction, a destruction which shirks even tying itself to theory. Destruction for its own sake. This mind-set is that of a people so morally confused and so bitter at their own confusion- illuminating as it does the ineluctable obviousness of man; if you have no reason for doing as you do, then why do you do it? If you wilfully contradict that rigid question, then you are merely acting out of childish stubbornness. Where does that leave the radical mind? For Dostoyevsky's characters- Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, Verkhovensky- it leaves them to act for the sake of it and run like mad from the consequential questioning. It's nothing like a simple, nihilistic shrug of the shoulders, it is a blind, existential panic. Coetzee's Dostoyevsky finds the same panic throughout this novel; as a writer, a soul-giving plunderer of all this frightening mess, he gives himself over to the void, and from it produces his work. D.'s son's white suit is emblematic of this routine: it parallels the story of Stavrogin from the Devils who wears it to indulge the delusion of the simple-minded Maria. Why does Stavrogin behave in such a cruel way? Why did Raskolnikov kill Lizaveta and her sister? These are questions without resolve, and a writer who can present such questions is transcendent of all that is neat about literature, all that can be explained away. Dostoyevsky is the man for giving yourself to unshakeable grief and all the frustration and pain it brings with it.
Coetzee's novel also touches on the familiar, Dostoyevskian theme of the sexual corruption of children, perhaps because it is an ultimate perversion- an ultimate sacrifice of oneself to motiveless, destitute, reckless amorality.
The Master of Petersburg is a miraculous novel. I've been working through Coetzee for a short while, about half a dozen of his books so far, and it is evident to me again and again that he is our greatest living novelist.