Let the Demon in: Death and Guilt in The Master of Petersburg
Unlike his earlier novels, J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg has not received the attention that it deserves from the critics. Instead, and according to Coetzee’s authorized biography, the novel has “earned him some of the fiercest criticism ever in his novelistic career”; some critics have even accused him of literary terrorism, while others have claimed how his Dostoevsky comes out as a neurotic and unpleasant person (Kannemeyer 2012: 8935). Others saw no value in the novel except for confusing or even deceiving the reader, and distorting history (ibid. 8935–8939). The fictional story, published in 1994, set in Russia, does not only partly draw on real aspects of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life but also on certain political events witnessed in Russia at the time as well as on a number of novels by the Russian author, specifically The Devils or The Possessed. In the novel, Coetzee allows himself “many distortions and manipulations of the historical data” (ibid. 8914).1 In addition, as the novel progresses, we learn that Coetzee’s Dostoevsky is an aging author who is irked by the failure of his mental and physical faculties, and the event that brought him to St Petersburg from his self-imposed exile assumes much larger implications than the mere mysterious death of a student or even a stepson. The incident that has forced him to come to Russia exposes the tensions that exist between the generations, namely between parents and children, and reveals the nature of the evil flaunted by the...
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