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The Master of Petersburg

3.63  ·  Rating details ·  2,736 ratings  ·  201 reviews
In the fall of 1869 Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, lately a resident of Germany, is summoned back to St. Petersburg by the sudden death of his stepson, Pavel. Half crazed with grief, stricken by epileptic seizures, and erotically obsessed with his stepson's landlady, Dostoevsky is nevertheless intent on unraveling the enigma of Pavel's life. Was the boy a suicide or a mur ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published November 1st 1995 by Penguin Books (first published 1994)
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alissee Because that's how it's usually called. St.Petersburg, or Sankt-Peterburg in Russian, is the official name, but most of the time we shorten it to…moreBecause that's how it's usually called. St.Petersburg, or Sankt-Peterburg in Russian, is the official name, but most of the time we shorten it to "Petersburg" (or even "Piter").

It is the same in literature: the city is usually mentioned as Petersburg, and Dostoevsky himself called it thus.(less)

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Ian "Marvin" Graye
Imaginary Memoirs

The first person narrator of "The Master of Petersburg" is Coetzee's imagining of Fyodor Dostoyevsky as he might have been in October, 1869, immediately before he started writing his third novel, "Demons".

The Master is living in Dresden, when he is summoned back to St. Petersburg after the sudden death of his stepson, Pavel Isaev, on 12 October.

He soon begins to inhabit Pavel's lodgings, haunts and psyche in an attempt to comprehend their shared life and fate and to solve the mystery of his cause of death (suicide or mur
Mar 27, 2013 rated it it was ok
Disappointingly often, I find that people tend to confuse the views of fictional characters created by an author with the views of the author him or herself. I think that's the heart of my problem with this novel, "The Master of Petersburg".

It's not that this is a bad book, either. Coetzee is a marvelous writer, and at times managed to truly enrapture me in the plot and in his characters. So I suppose I am objecting to this work on principle. Coetzee understands what makes a compelling read: co
Moon Rose
May 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Strokes of a Paintbrush [Coetzee's Narrative Strokes]

J.M. Coetzee's descriptive tool appears to be like a paintbrush---or so it seems.
The deeply-rooted-thought-penetrating narrative is elegant in its indulgence, poetic in its expression, vivid in its portrayal, as it attempts to give form to a whirlpool of thoughts that glide restlessly inside the unstable mind of a genius. The wordings themselves become an efficient descriptive tool like that of a paintbrush, maneuvered by the painter's
May 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There’s not really a lot of room for silliness in this review, not that Coetzee tends to lend himself to anything other than seriousness in general. Noted nepotistic asshole Martin Amis famously said that Coetzee’s entire corpus was "predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure." Sorry, Marty, but there is a distinct difference between you and JM: he can actually fucking write, and you have been reduced to a sound bite (and a footnote to literature that is already in the process of being fo ...more
David Lentz
Sep 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating read. His syntax reveals a clarity and credibility so elevated in its integrity that one lives the POV of the narrator in this case the existential, genius novelist Dostoevsky. It is a daunting bit of narrative ambition, bordering on hubris, to assume the POV of Dostoevsky and yet Coetzee is compelling, skilled and possibly even on the brink of masterful in this rendition. He writes a great deal about the relationship between fathers and sons -- very Turgenev. What does it mean to su ...more
Apr 25, 2011 rated it it was ok
This is a well plotted literary thriller. Lots of dramatic situations unfolding simultaneously: a murder mystery (of course), an extra-marital affair (of course), the death of a child (of course), a disease (of course), and child molestation (can't leave that out). I really had higher hopes for J.M. Coetzee though. He had been recommended to my by people whom I respect and he won the Nobel Prize and everything etc... Unfortunately I found, despite its considerable strengths--eg it was engaging. ...more
Aug 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels
stunning 'what-if' fiction imagines Dostoevsky returning to Petersburg from exile in Dresden on the death of his stepson, Pavel, and getting entangled with his landlady, her daughter and the revolutionary cadre Pavel got involved with. Thought provoking in its debates about revolution and death and its legacy, plus whip sharp in its descriptions of the city and its poverty, it also delves deep into writing/art. Electric.
This is the story of Dostoevsky who tries to understand the subtle death of Pavel, his step-son. Another magnificent book written by one the masters of the contemporary fiction.
In the introduction to Summer in Baden-Baden, Susan Sontag mentions The Master of Petersburg in relation to Tsypkin’s work. Being on a Dostoevsky-themed streak, and wanting to read everything written about the man anyway, I immediately ordered Coetzee’s work. I finished Tspykin’s exceptional novel only a week or so before starting Coetzee’s, so it was still fresh and alive in my mind when I began reading The Master of Petersburg. Perhaps it was the beauty of Tsypkin - so vivid to me still - that made me react with such vehement ...more
Aug 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I loved reading this book. It is not only about Dostoevsky, but is also written in Dostoevsky's style. It's dark and fast. It's about death, punishment and inner battle.

The character Dostoevsky has some of the attributes of his own characters Svidrigailov, Stavroghin, Raskolnikov, with the distinction of a man fighting with his age and not having his nobility and superiority of the "master" as we expected. He looses his strength and ability to see things clearly and the o
Very feverish novel about, and completely in the line of the Russian writer Dostoevsky. Coetzee evokes a secret visit of the 49-year-old Dostoyevsky to Saint-Petersburg, after the death of his stepson Pavel. It is not clear to me what Coetzee had in view with this book: a tribute to the genius of Dostoyevsky (and at the same time, a portrait of his despair)? An attempt to dig even deeper into the human soul than the Russian grand master had already done? An exploration of the manipulation techni ...more
Mar 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
this may be coetzee's most ambitious and richly layered novel, seemingly his most personal (his son dead at twenty-three from his own falling accident). while the book triumphs on many levels, not the least of which being the emotional candor he would had to have mustered throughout the writing of it, this is hardly his most powerful work. much of the intense, unabashed rawness of his other (earlier & later) stories is spared here, replaced instead with a contemplative perspective, perhaps n ...more
Jun 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book, it seems to me, is more about Coetzee than Dostoyevsky. As a psychological study of Dostoyesky, I was very disappointed. But luckily I did not approach it with those expectations -- I approached it like I approach every Coetzee book: here is one miserable son of a bitch who can sometimes tell good stories but oftentimes gets caught up in ideas or psycho-sexual theorizing. He is, it seems to me, the grandson (literarily speaking) of Dostoyevskian style -- an inner psychologically torme ...more
Stephen Durrant
Aug 29, 2009 rated it liked it
Dostoevsky, in this novel, returns to St. Petersburg from his home in Dresdan to try to pursue the spirit of his stepson, who has died in mysterious circumstances. In telling this story, Coetzee brilliantly creates the paranoid atmosphere of 19th century Russia, the same Russia reflected in Dostoevsky's novels. Coetzee also takes up the old Russian theme of fathers and sons, as Dostoevsky learns that his stepson has a perception of the past and the development of their relationship quite differe ...more
Justin Evans
Feb 19, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
I recommend this for anyone who's read, at the very least, Crime & Punishment and Demons. I'm not sure how much sense it would make without that background. It's a wonderful piece of art, perfectly structured and paced, and reflects impressively on its themes - generational conflict, what it means to be an author, contemplation vs action - but is depressing in a way I'm not sure I can get behind. Don't get me wrong. I love depressing books. But this one... maybe it's just that Coetzee's more ...more
Brian Wadman
Aug 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Just a quick one because I am at work and have classes to prepare for. This was a struggle to read. There were times when I got bored and restless, counting pages left and waiting for the impact and then in one major session I read the last 120 pages or so and I put the book down and thought it was worth 3 stars.

Then at night I had the most intense dreams and I awoke with insight into myself. I think the book's deep introspective search into the ego had rubbed off on me. And like the main chara
Jun 05, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Caitlin by: Tobias
Stunningly beautiful. Themes of consciousness, death, sex, the afterlife, suicide, gambling with God, questions about God's existence, the necessity of narrative, the role of narrative, the act of authorship, illness, independence within the self and from the government. The main character is Dostoevsky--I'm not sure quite how to read fictional stories based on factual people and am sure more resonances would sound if I were more familiar with D's work. Will have to read Crime and Punishment thi ...more
Jaco Barnard-Naudé
Aug 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
I'm sure that I am not the only one who feels an incredible tranquility in reading Coetzee. I know it is strange, but Coetzee's prose has a calming influence on me, regardless of the subject matter. I think it has something to do with the rhythm of the prose - I first became aware of this effect when I read The Master of Petersburg. Yes, its austere Coetzee, but it is also brilliant writing.
Richard Smith
Mar 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
This wasn't a difficult book to read, but neither was it what I would call enjoyable.

Coetzee clearly admires Dostoevsky (and how could he not?), and n writing about him he writes about both reading and writing, which I've tried to capture in my blog that is mostly quotes:
J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, is not everyone's cup of tea. 'The Master of Petersburg', first published in 1994, is no exception. Following the death of Dostoevsky's stepson Pavel, Coetzee manages to construct a novel with such towering themes as the father-son relationship, the quest for the truth, death, and the very art of writing itself. However, for all its complexity, most reviewers of 'The Master of Petersburg' here on Goodreads have found Coetzee's portr ...more
Maria C
Sep 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a difficult book to review.. in all honesty when I started the book I hated it, it was almost imposible for me to turn to the next page but then half way through it something happened and I couldn't put it down. The overlapping of stories and characters with real life events through out the book is simply genius.
I must admit this wasn't a fun reading experience but it's an experience I'm happy I had.

#lee2018 No.10 y No.12
Feb 18, 2013 rated it it was ok
It was fun watching Coetzee imitating Dosteovsky's style. Characters fling themselves on to graves, getting dirt in their beards. Scenes are hysterical, emotional excess always leading Dosteovsky to self-flagellation. Coetzee is always planting explosive paradoxes within Dosteovsky's interior life, "There is a rush of feeling in him, contradictory, like two waves slapping against each other: an urge to protect her, an urge to lash out at her because she is alive." This sense of paradox, though, ...more
Sorin Hadârcă
Jul 28, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, russia, coetzee
'The Master of Petersburg' reads as a 100% classic Russian novel, which is bizzare, knowing that the voice belongs to a South African who also wrote 'Waiting for the Barbarians' and 'Disgrace'... Coetzee's Dostoevski is a man who cannot swim yet is surprisingly able to keep afloat, always oscilating in this near-death experience. A man who is lost, not able to tell the reality from a fabrication, but still guessing the right questions... Writing a novel is the only way for him (and for Coetzee) ...more
Brent Legault
Jun 29, 2012 rated it liked it
The dour genius of J. M. Coetzee cannot be denied, not by me at least. He has a relentless intellect that I wish, sometimes, would relent just a little, just enough to allow a crack of a grin -- even a grim grin would do wonders for this reader's constitution.

I occasionally picture Mr. Coetzee frowning at his typewriter or computer or inkwell, thinking up the heart-wrenchingest scenes; frown deepening to a scowl, making words into matters of the soul; scowl puckering into a sneer, a sneer of wi
Oct 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A brilliant book. Based on the death of Dostoevsky's step-son in a odd falling accident at the age of 23. The novel examines his complex feelinsg as Dostoevsky returns to Saint Petersburg to grieve and resolve his step-son death. But there is no resolution here. Instead, we have a heart-wrenching look at the great Russian author and a mystery that only deepens the sorrow. This can be a difficult book for some. Each time is is a possible resolution we only receive more questions. This can be easi ...more
Sep 10, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction, 20thcentury
This is the second book I've read recently that is based on part of Dostoevsky's life (the other was Summer in Baden Baden. Coetzee does a great job of getting into FD's head as he is dealing with the death of his step-son. He has FD "novelize" what is happening and what he feels (even going so far as to rewrite his step-sons diary entries), so that the psychological study is also a meditation on writing. I wouldn't rank it as Coetzee best work, but it is very well done.
Guy Salvidge
Nov 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Amazingly good. I like Coetzee but this must be about my favourite of the ten or so of his books I've read. This is similar in approach to Foe in that both novels concern a famous personage (Daniel Dafoe and Dostoyevsky) but whereas I found Foe empty and dull, this I found enchanting. If you like Russian literature (or literature about Russia), then you will certainly appreciate this. And at 250 pages it is far more slight than all but a handful of the great Russian novels.
Jan 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Coetzee projects his worries as a writer through a fascinating tale whose hero is Dostoevsky himself and its time is 1869. It falls within the long and regrettably neglected tradition of the intellectual novel (Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann and Musil). Though intellectually challenging, it retains the special magic of Coetzee.
Pat Pujolas
Jul 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Another highest recommend, particularly to other writers. This is historical fiction at its finest, by one of contemporary fiction's true masters. This is one of those novels you don't want to set down, and can't wait to pick up. Tremendous effort.
i was reading george saunders' "lincoln in the bardo" on my epub reader few months ago. but, you know, i have little patience, so i stopped reading it not because it was boring but my thin patience. it was extraordinarily written as far as i read of that book. but, why am i talking about "lincoln in the bardo" in this book's review? i started doing that because this particular book is on the same wavelength but very different.

this book deals with the grief of a father -- that is dost
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John Maxwell Coetzee is an author and academic from South Africa. He became an Australian citizen in 2006 after relocating there in 2002. A novelist and literary critic as well as a translator, Coetzee has won the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.
“In the act of writing he experiences, today, an exceptional sensual pleasure -- in the feel of the pen, snug in the crook of his thumb, but even more in the feel of his hand being tugged back lightly from its course across the page by the strict, unvarying shape of the letters, the discipline of the alphabet.” 2 likes
“When death cuts all other links, there remains the name. Baptism: the union of a soul with a name, the name it will carry into eternity.” 1 likes
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