J.M. Coetzee tortures his characters psychologically and physically and The Master of Petersburg (published in 1995) is no exception. In 1869 the stepson of Fyodor Dostoevsky came to St. Petersburg to mourn for his dead stepson. He encounters his son’s landlord and her daughter, the revolutionaries with whom his son had been consorting, and the police who are investigating the death of his son as well as the revolutionaries. He also encounters the overwhelming character of Russia herself, in all her stormy misery.
Dostoevsky’s grief for his son dominates the first third of the novel and is beautifully and painfully wrought. In fact, his writing in this novel presents the most accurate portrayal of grief that I have read, based on my own grim experience of what it is like to lose someone. There are many exquisite (in both pain and beauty) passages about what it is we are actually mourning when we grieve, and the physical sensations we feel.
There is one passage that I found particularly real and profound. What I most wanted to shield my sister from was the knowledge of certain death, once it became certain. Coetzee understands this and explains in The Master of Petersburg:
“What he cannot bear is the thought that, for the last fraction of the last instant of his fall, Pavel knew that nothing could save him, that he was dead. He wants to believe Pavel was protected from that certainty, more terrible than annihilation itself, by the hurry and confusion of the fall, by the mind’s way of etherizing itself against whatever is too enormous to be borne….It is from knowing that he is dead that he wants to protect his son. As long as I live, he thinks, let me be the one who knows! By whatever act of will it takes, let me be the thinking animal plunging through the air.”
The rest of the novel documents Dostoevsky’s search for understanding why the city and the country still have such a hold over him, and the hold it had over his son. There is a loss of control, both physical and mental, as the forty-nine year old author (Dostoevsky, not Coetzee, but are they the same?) struggles to understand; he fights to regain command over his desires and his knowledge and to fulfill his duty to his stepson and to Russia.
It struck me as I read this book that Coetzee is like a South African version of John Updike, in how he documents the relationships between men and women: all is defined in terms of the sexual and the physical, and women are not portrayed as possessing any real knowledge other than that innately held as women. And yet I like Coetzee, much more than I like Updike. Certainly his novel Elizabeth Costello does not follow the critique I offer just above, as the main character is an intelligent and very thoughtful and thought provoking woman. But she is not quite real; she is a twisting together and a morphing of Coetzee’s usual portrayals of men and women into the body of one character.