BOOK REVIEW / Dostoyevsky and drains: Anthony Quinn follows J M Coetzee on a mysterious journey through St Petersburg: 'The Master of Petersburg' - J M Coetzee: Secker & Warburg, 14.99 pounds
Visiting the dingy tenement where Pavel had been lodging, the writer feels compelled to stay there himself, convulsed with grief and confused about the circumstances of his beloved stepson's death. Did he kill himself, or was he murdered by the Tsarist police, who suspected him, with good reason, of seditious behaviour?
Coetzee sets up this highly seductive mystery within the first 50 pages, but thereafter it becomes apparent that his book has larger ambitions in view. The Master of Petersburg is a sombre study in moral responsibility and the creative impulse, and focuses upon the disjunction between what a writer can see and how much of it he can actually portray, or choose to portray.
Dostoevsky the man is seen as a hesitant, grieving, rather depleted character, prey to bouts of falling sickness as he tramps the gloomy, squalid streets of St Petersburg in search of clues. Some of those clues, he suspects, lie buried in the hearts of Pavel's landlady and her knowing daughter, Matryona, who regards him, distressingly, as an interloper: in her presence 'he is keenly aware that his clothes have begun to smell, that his skin is dry and flaky, that the dental plates he wears click when he talks'. All this and haemorrhoids, too.
Coetzee's alertness to physical deliquescence is acute, particularly in regard to its smell: we are never done with smells 'of drains and fish-offal' and 'a smell of damp plaster, damp brick', or worse, 'a smell of putrid fish' and 'ordure and mouldering masonry'.
Yet these emanations all seem to mask something more sinister, something that can resist detection: the odour of a corrupting soul. Coetzee's design is two-pronged. We see first the weak-willed philanderer, persuading Anna, the landlady, into his bed and so betraying his young wife back in Dresden.
But his conscience is assailed by a rather less forgiving character than himself. He is Nechaev, revolutionary activist, ideologue and scourge of the Tsarist authorities; it was his charismatic spell that led Pavel to join the underground struggle and, perhaps, sacrifice his life. Nechaev, described as 'a piper with troop of swine dancing at his heels' taunts Dostoevsky as a complacent has-been, 'a dry old work horse at the end of his life', who lives like a parasite on the wretchedness of others. Coetzee dramatises their conflict in a long duelling exchange, conspirator and novelist each fighting his corner in a dank cellar beneath the bustle of St Petersburg.
How can the writer sit back while a nation suffers? Nechav asks him, 'Isn't it time you tried to share the existence of the oppressed instead of sitting at home and writing about them and counting your money?' Repelled as he is by the young man's fanaticism, Dostoevsky reluctantly hears another's voice behind it - Pavel's.
This is the central antipathy of The Master of Petersburg, not, as it first seems, the conflict between anarchy and rule, but that between father and son. Dostoevsky's father was, it transpires, a tyrant hated by his workers; now, leafing through his late stepson's private papers, he is forced to recognise how much he himself was despised by Pavel. His own gloominess and parsimony were the spark to the boy's resentment; it took Nechaev and his crude political demagoguery to fan it into a flame. The hideous image of a father cannibalising his child is dramatically reversed as Nechaev warns him:
'When they look at you, do you know what these hollow-eyed children see? . . . They see fat cheeks and a juicy tongue. These innocents would fall upon you like rats and chew you up if they did not know you were strong enough to beat them off.'
Coetzee's novel is strewn with similarly feral images, of possession, of seizure, of desperate means and violent ends. It is composed with great elegance and feeling, which made me wonder why I didn't enjoy it more.
Certainly his reputation is formidable, as the plaudits for two previous novels on the dustjacket attest - 'an astonishing book', 'a truly astonishing novel', 'a magnificent and unforgettable work', 'an astonishingly powerful story'. Praise indeed, and one imagines that more of the same verbal bouquets will be handed out to The Master of Petersburg. So I feel bound to register a feeling of disappointment that I wasn't quite so, well, astonished by it all. The writing is impeccable, but actually rather dull. Coetzee's fondness for inversion - 'Imaginary memoirs. Memories of the imagination', or 'Because I am he. Because he is I' and so on - left me cold, as did the long anguished dialogues between the novelist and Nechaev.
More damagingly, the book never manages to vary its tone, which is one of louring gloom, appropriate to a novel preoccupied with death and decay, but quite a test when unrelieved. There may have been little cause for jollity in mid-19th-century St Petersburg, but one hopes that J M Coetzee will accept that even the author of Crime and Punishment could laugh too.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Michelle Obama highlights harsh restrictions faced by Saudi women after meeting King Salman without wearing a headscarf
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 Kim Kardashian on Bruce Jenner's 'story': 'We support him no matter what, and I think when the time is right, he'll talk'
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
The Jump 2015 line-up: Joey Essex, Mike Tindall, Jodie Kidd and co take to the slopes
Game of Thrones: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as he can keep his clothes on
Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' goes viral 35 years later
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Churchill: The Nation's Farewell, TV review: Paxman reveals truth behind crane docker tribute, but delivers a fitting honour to Winston
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures