cover image The Master of Petersburg

The Master of Petersburg

J. M. Coetzee. Viking Books, $21.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-670-85587-2

Writing from inside the head of another writer is always a hazardous undertaking; when the subject is Fyodor Dostoyevski, the audacity is breathtaking. But that is what Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians; The Life & Times of Michael K) dares here, succeeding beyond all expectation. His Dostoyevski, after serving his sentence in Siberia, is living in self-imposed exile in Germany when his much-cherished stepson Pavel is found dead on a quay in St. Petersburg. The novelist rushes back there, full of anguish and guilt, and finds himself drawn instantly into an intense, edgy affair with the boy's landlady and into a wary intimacy with her young daughter, who had befriended Pavel. As a former revolutionary, he also becomes the object of police attention, particularly as one of Pavel's close associates was Nechaev, the very model of a ruthless Bolshevik. The epileptic Dostoyevski is in deepest turmoil as he mourns his stepson, tries to learn how he died (Was he killed by the police? Slain by the revolutionaries as a provocation? A suicide?) and alternately yields to and resists his darkest erotic self. The world Coetzee conjures with burning intensity is the one we remember from Karamazov and The Possessed, and there are long, searching conversations, with a police inspector and with the remorseless Nechaev himself, that could have been penned by the Russian master. It's a harrowing, exhilarating performance sure to further lift Coetzee's lofty reputation. (Nov.)