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The Master of Petersburg: A Novel
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2004
Format: Paperback
What is amazing about this book is that Coetzee's prose reads like an authentic translation into English of an original Russian text. To some that may not seem like an impressive accomplishment, or even a desirable characteristic of a novel. But think about how difficult it must have been to do this. He had to have abandoned his practiced and perfected prose in order to learn an entirely different style of writing. He must have read countless translations of Russian novels, particularly Dostoevskiy's (and perhaps even the original texts?) in order to begin to feel the cadence and rhythm of the language. The result is a feeling of period and environment that rings of authenticity. The prose actually serves as a conduit for getting closer and more intimate with the story's main character of Dostoevskiy.
Other than that, this is a fairly mediocre book, certainly not worthy of mention in the same breath as Disgrace or several other works by this Nobel Prize winning author. But for lovers of things Russian or for fans of Dostoevskiy, it could be an interesting read.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 1999
Format: Paperback
Dostoevsky and Coetzee readers might find this novel interesting. It seems that Coetzee and Dostoevsky have the same temperaments as writers, that both explore the same crevices of the human psyche. However, I'm not too sure whether Coetzee succeeds in interpreting Dostoevsky's frame of mind between 'Crime and Punishment' and 'The Brothers Karamazov.' In some passages, the novel becomes too obscure to follow, and perhaps someone with a better knowledge of both Dostoevsky's life and his novels might understand what Coetzee is trying to get at in them. In this sense, 'The Master of Petersburg' doesn't stand on its own. But Coetzee's favorite fiction themes--isolated suffering, glimpses of madness, rivalries between family members, revenge, oppression by the known and unknown, the burdens of empathy--are abundantly represented in the novel, and the tension he creates at some moments through his language and images is truly enviable. I definitively recommend this book to those interested in Coetzee's ideas.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Coetzee audaciously imagines the life of Dostoevsky in THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG. Unlike Leonid Tsypkin's SUMMER IN BADEN BADEN, a novel whose verisimilitude lends an amazing accuracy to that of a documentary, Coetzee's is a pure fantasy of the great 19th century Russian novelist. Set in 1869, when Dostoevsky was summoned from Germany to St. Petersburg by the sudden death of his stepson, the novel is at once a compelling mystery steeped in the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Russia and a brilliant and courageous meditation on authority and rebellion, art and imagination. Dostoevsky under Coetzee's hand obsessively followed his stepson's spirit, trying to ascertain whether he was a suicide or a murder victim and whether he loved or despised his stepfather.

Coetzee deftly works up a mystery of the death of Pavel Alexandrovich and a haunting quasi-appearance of the dead from page one. Dostoevsky breathed in deeply, again and again, mentally begging his stepson's ghost to enter him. His grief for Pavel's death was poignant that being alive to him was like, at the moment, a kind of nausea, a desire to be extinguished and annihilated. Since the news came of the death, something had been ebbing out of him as if he was the one being dead: he died but his death failed to arrive.

No sooner had Dostoevsky convinced of his stepson's suicide did a seditionist belonging to the People's Vengeance unveil the truth about Pavel's death. Among Pavel's belongings was a piece of paper with a list of people to be assassinated. In the name of the sedition group, Pavel (who had yet murdered anyone) was to carry out the assassination as soon as signal was given. The assassinations were meant to precipitate a general uprising and to lead to the overthrow of the state. Did Pavel fear of the consequences, or did the People's Vengeance find him to be traitor and execute him?

As Dostoevsky sidled to the heart of the matter, Pavel's death and his left-behind diary revealed a national crisis: one that was redolent of the hideous face of hunger, sickness, and poverty. These were the ways in which real forces manifest themselves in the world. The forces had the origins in the centers of power. Pavel allegedly wrote, distributed subversive pamphlets and was believed to be murdered. Like the People's Vengeance, Pavel could have simply merged with the invisible people of the city and with the conditions that produced him, became underground man who chose to alienate from the hostility of the world. His death, therefore, became the underground group's bait to lure Dostoevsky from Dresden to St. Petersburg so he could write stories of people oppressed by the regime. In a way, Pavel was sacrificed for the cause of revolution, nothing short of martyrdom. But Dostoevsky did not understand how or for whom Pavel was sacrificed nor was he moved by the group's bitterness toward Russia.

The ingenuity of THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG lies in Cozetee's mindful association of the fantasized entities in his novel to Dostoevsky and his heroes, especially Raskolnikov, the underground man, and even Ivan Karamazov. These heroes from Dostoevsky's classics manifest in the form of a distant allusion in Cozetee's work, trickling into Cozetee's lines through a suggestiveness and pervasiveness. The seditionist fantasized a sort of re-creation, a new mindset and way of thinking almost as radical to that of Raskolnikov, who positioned himself on the same level as God and contrived to re-order the world and transcended his conscience. In other way the group resembled the underground man, as the group no longer acted in the name of ideas but in accord to the extreme of senses. It is through the tempestuous political backdrop Dostoevsky embarked on a journey to discovery of the relationship between father and son.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
In J. M. Coetzee's "The Master of Petersburg" when the main character is asked what kind of books he writes, he doesn't know what to respond. Page later, thinking about it he concludes he could have said he `write[s] perversions of the truth. [He chooses] the crooked road and take[s] the children into dark places. [He] follow[s] the dance of the pen'.

In novel "The Master of Petersburg" South African writer Coetzee could state that of book he writes is the same kind of his character's -- who, by the way, happens to be Russian master Fyodor Dostoevsky. Once the contemporary writer picks the nineteen-century author as his main character and draws the narrative following a period of his life, the novel develops a dialogue between past and present.

Coetzee is one of the best and boldest writers alive and working. He is at the prime of his career and had proven it for over ten years, producing relevant books dealing with current issues -- or past issues that resonates in the present. "The Master of Petersburg" is not different. Although the story is set in 1869, the narrative echoes in the present once it portrays a man in quest of the truth. This truth is linked to social problems of dissatisfaction and will of revolution.

Part a thriller, part a mediation on life and arts, this book asks the reader to fully give himself to the narrative. The characters are very vivid and while very local, they reach universal dimensions. Dostoevsky's books bridges past and present in the narrative. The allusions are very subtle and the more you know about the Russian writer, the more rewarding will be the experience of reading this book.

When it comes to contemporary writers, Coetzee is one of the very likely to have a timeless body of work -- just like Dostoevsky and other masters. There is no doubt that in two-hundred year time people will still be reading the South African author just like we read the Russians today.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2000
Format: Paperback
A father travels to Petersburg upon learning of the death of his beloved stepson, Pavel. There he resides in his son's apartment for what he intends to be a time of remembrance and vigilance. Yet, before he can even begin this time of healing, he is spun into a web of unknowns and deception. The police, who are keeping some of Pavel's personal papers, say that he killed himself while the social group to which he belonged believe he was murdered. Add to all this confusion a landlady whom the father finds himself totally taken by and you have The Master of Petersburg. Coetzee's writing is, as usual, superior. He has the ability to draw in the reader and then keep him there wanting to better understand the feelings of the protagonist and the forces that surround him. I think Coetzee is one of the best-kept secrets in the entire literary world. Although he may have won many a prize, the typical reader is not familiar with his name or his works.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2004
Format: Paperback
After the death of his stepson Pavel Isajev, Fjodor Dostojevski returns to St. Petersburg to say farewell and to find out the true cause of his death. He meets Pavel's landlady and her unpleasant daughter and he also finds out that things are not the way they seem to be: Pavel's death (he had fallen to his death) is less clear than it appears. Fjodor finds out that Pavel was part of the entourage of the vague, anarchistic Netsjajev, who now also wants to use Dostojevski. The police suspects this and sends a police spy who is dressed as a beggar to see what Dostojevski is doing while in St. Petersburg. And in the meantime Dostojevski has to come to terms with the unexpected death of a son that he loved dearly, but that did not love his stepfather in return.

I read the book while in St. Petersburg and the Russian atmosphere is very well described, but all the main characters, side characters and psychological twists and turns do not make this book very easy to read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
In my paperback edition of THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG, there are 250 pages. At about page 240, it occurred to me that I could set the book down at that point and would suffer no ill effects if I never picked it up again. I will say that, upon finishing, the last ten pages did contain what I thought of as the crux of the story, and did somewhat mitigate the previous 240, but in the end, I stick to my original thought. Overall, I just found it uninteresting.

Most of the blurbage for this book make it sound as though it is some sort of murder mystery set in pre-revolutionary Russia, where Fyodor Dostoevsky has come to Petersburg to attend to his step-son, Pavel's, arrangements after his suicide. This does happen, as well as a romantic entanglement with his step-son's landlady, and some shady contact with the anarchists with whom Pavel had associated. Questions do arise as to the nature of Pavel's involvement with these others, and Dostoevsky begins to wonder if it was suicide or murder, but these elements are relatively minor; they are really just the structure on which to hang Dostoevsky's frantic musings on the nature of fathers and sons, the living and the dead, desire, and, perhaps the true heart of the book, the metaphysical repercussions of artistic creation.

Almost from the beginning, I had a difficult time sustaining interest. The first quarter to a third of the book is perpetually concerned with Dostoevsky's grief and interior monologues as he fights his way through the stages of his sorrow. The author stays mired in this cycle, with Dostoevsky revisiting the same imagery again and again, refusing to let go; and while this seems like an accurate representation of the circular thinking into which a person is trapped during a period such as this, it all sounded contrived for some reason. It could have been from the author's choice to have as his protagonist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I still wonder at the reason behind it. The conception of Dostoevsky carries with it a lot of connotations, especially to those who have read his work; Mr. Coetzee was undoubtedly aware of this, and I assume he chose the Russian writer because of it. For me, this was the fatal flaw; no matter what insights the author was actually trying to bring about, I could never suspend belief long enough to listen to them.

Why Dostoevsky? I could only guess, but none of my guesses are very charitable toward the author - and they could be all wrong. For most readers, this won't be an issue, and since Mr. Coetzee goes on to have some pretty heavy things to say about what it really means to be a writer, those who have no problem with Dostoevsky the character may find the book much more worthwhile than I.

This doesn't put me off Mr. Coetzee - this is simply one offering that didn't satisfy. There are other novels of his that I still look forward to reading, as I found the nature of the themes he explored here in MASTER of interest. It was just the method of delivery that never took off for me.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
The novel imagines Dostoevsky's life between the the publication of Crime and Punishment and before he began writing The Brothers Karamazov. It is a meditation on pain, loss, and love, as Dostoevsky's stepson, Pavel, has died. He tries obsessively to reclaim some of this boy's past by renting the room he once lived in and conversing with the people who knew Pavel to ascertain whether he committed suicide or was a victim of murder. Coetzee's style in this novel is much like Dostoevsky's. There is a lot of inner monologue and the thoughts and anguish of the characters are always known. It makes you think about the similarities and differences between the characters an author writes about and the life of the author himself. Coetzee seems to say that they are almost impossible to distinguish from each other and I will agree to some extent, although I was distracted somewhat by this extreme portrayal. Overall, a nice glimpse into the life of Dostoevsky (though I found it akward that Coetzee changed the year of Pavel's death) and the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Russia.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2003
Format: Paperback
Coetzee's novel is set after the publication of Crime and Punishment (certain characters even reference the novel, and its protagonist by name). A previous reviewer was mistaken, how I dont know, it is explicitly clear. If he had read "The Devils" he would recognize "the prototypes" are meant for that novel,(and to some extent "The Brothers Karamazov") not Crime and Punishment. This is not a novel for those with limited comprehension.
Excellent novel by the way. All Coetzee's books are worth reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
I must say that the present tense of the book was shocking for me. It seemed to drive me relentlessly onto the next page and then the next....
While certainly, some of the facts aren't truly historical or necessarily accurate, that doesn't really affect the nature of the story. This book isn't concerned with being totally accurate in the details. It is the voyage that Dostoevsky makes internally from his initial knowledge of his step-sons death to his ability to release all the emotions, pain, fears etc associated with it.
This is about Dostoevsky (and maybe authors in general). It isnt about "the facts."
Anyway, I thought it was great. I look forward to reading more...
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