Finding Authenticity in an Inauthentic Novel: J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg as Personal Confession
As is now commonly known, J.M. Coetzee’s 1994 novel The Master of Petersburg tells one blatant lie: it kills off Fyodor Dostoevsky’s stepson Pavel Isaev in his youth, when in fact the real Pavel outlived the Russian master by 20 years. I call this alteration of Dostoevsky’s personal history a lie not to in any way condemn the act, but rather to stress the disingenuous intention that is undeniably central in The Master of Petersburg’s structure. Confronted with its disingenuousness, the readers have a decision to make whether to dismiss the novel’s discourse or try to find an accommodating mode of reading with which to get at the novel’s truth. With this paper, I will argue that, by viewing The Master of Petersburg as a confessional narrative from Coetzee himself, the novel gains a solid core of truth that allows it to be taken with due seriousness.
First, let us establish the lie of The Master of Petersburg. The novel intentionally gives no indication that it is departing from historical truth, especially as it begins in the innocuous manner of a historical novel. Page one proclaims the title “Petersburg” and the text starts by introducing an image of a specific time and place in history: “October, 1869. A droshky passes slowly down a street in the Haymarket district of Petersburg. Before a tall tenement building the driver reins in his horse” (Coetzee 1994: 1). The novel then continues to otherwise maintain a...
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