Jun '02 [Home]


The Master of Petersburg
(novel excerpts)

[This 1994 novel (Viking) by South African, J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Booker Prize, finds Dostoevsky living in Dresden, where he receives a telegram with the news that his grown stepson, Pavel, has died under ambiguous circumstances in St. Petersburg. Emotional ambiguity becomes thematic, as Russia's all-powerful author learns to respect in death the young man he treated as a runt, discovering that his own imagination is too limited to have written Pavel's life and his courage too slight to have lived it. Eds.]

'I by no means want to dismiss any of what you say,' Maximov resumes. 'You are a man of gifts, a man of special insight, as I knew before I met you. And these child conspirators are certainly a different kettle of fish from their predecessors. They believe they are immortal. In that sense it is indeed like fighting demons. And implacable too. It is in their blood, so to speak, to wish us ill, our generation. Something they are born with. Not easy to be a father, is it? I am a father myself, but luckily a father of daughters. I would not wish to be the father of sons in our age. But didn't your own father…wasn't there some unpleasantness with your father, or do I misremember?'
       From behind the white eyelashes Maximov launches a keen little peep, then without waiting proceeds.
       'So I wonder, in the end whether the Nechaev phenomenon is quite as much an aberration of the spirit as you seem to say. Perhaps it is just the old matter of fathers and sons after all, such as we have always had, only deadlier in this particular generation, more unforgiving. In that case, perhaps the wisest course would be the simplest: to dig in and outlast them—wait for them to grow up. After all, we had the Decembrists, and then the men of '49. The Decembrists are old men now, those who are still alive; I'm sure that whatever were in possession of them took flight years ago. As for Petrashevsky and his friends, what is your opinion? Were Petrashevsky and his friends in the grip of demons?'
       Petrashevsky! Why does he bring up Petrashevsky?
       'I disagree. What you call the Nechaev phenomenon has a colouring of its own. Nechaev is a man of blood. The men you do the honour of referring to were idealists. They failed because, to their credit, they were not schemers enough, and certainly not men of blood. Petrashevsky — since you mention Petrashevsky—from the outset denounced the kind of Jesuitism that excuses the means in the name of the end. Nechaev is a Jesuit, a secular Jesuit who quite openly embraces the doctrine of ends to justify the most cynical abuse of his followers' energies.'
       'Then there is something I have missed. Explain to me again: why are dreamers, poets, intelligent young men like your stepson, drawn to bandits like Nechaev? Because, in your account, isn't that all Nechaev is: a bandit with a smattering of education?'
       'I do not know. Perhaps because in young people there is something that has not yet gone to sleep, to which the spirit in Nechaev calls. Perhaps it is in all of us: something we think has been dead for centuries but has only been sleeping. I repeat, I do not know. I am unable to explain the connection between my son and Nechaev. It is a surprise to me. I came here only to fetch Pavel's papers, which are precious to me in ways you will not understand. It is the papers I want, nothing else. I ask again: will you return them to me? They are useless to you. They will tell you nothing about why intelligent young men fall under the sway of evildoers. And they will tell you least of all because clearly you do not know how to read. All the time you were reading my son's story — let me say this — I noticed how you were holding yourself at a distance, erecting a barrier of ridicule, as though the words might leap out from the page and strangle you.'
       Something has begun to take fire within him while he has been speaking, and he welcomes it. He leans forward, gripping the arms of his chair.
       'What is it that frightens you, Councillor Maximov? When you read about Karamzin or Karamzov or whatever his name is, when Karamzin's skull is cracked open like an egg, what is the truth: do you suffer with him, or do you secretly exult behind the arm that swings the axe? You don't answer? Let me tell you then: reading is being the arm and being the axe and being the skull; reading is giving yourself up, not holding yourself at a distance and jeering. If I asked you, I am sure would say that you are hunting Nechaev down so that you can put him on trial, with due process and lawyers for the defence and prosecution and so forth, and then lock him away for the rest of his life in a clean, well-lit cell. But look into yourself: is that your true wish? Do you not truly want to chop off his head and stamp your feet in his blood?'
       He sits back, flushed.
       'You are a very clever man, Fyodor Mikhailovich. But you speak of reading as though it were demon-possession. Measured by that standard I fear I am a very poor reader indeed, dull and earthbound. Yet I wonder whether, at this moment, you are not in a fever. If you could see yourself in a mirror I am sure you would understand what I mean. Also, we have had a long conversation, interesting but long, and I have numerous duties to attend to.'
       'And I say, the papers you are holding on to so jealously may as well be written in Aramaic for all the good they will do you. Give them back to me!'
       Maximov chuckles. 'You supply me with the strongest, most benevolent of reasons not to give in to your request, Fyodor Mikhailovich, namely that in your present mood the spirit of Nechaev might leap from the page and take complete possession of you. But seriously: you say you know how to read. Will you at some future date read these papers for me, all of them, the Nechaev papers, of which this is only a single file among many?'
       'Read them for you?'
       'Yes. Give me a reading of them.'
       'Because you say I cannot read. Give me a demonstration of how to read. Teach me. Explain to me these ideas that are not ideas.'
       For the first time since the telegram arrived in Dresden, he laughs: he can feel the stiff lines of his cheeks breaking. The laugh is harsh and without joy. 'I have always been told,' he says, 'that the police constitute the eyes and ears of society. And now you call on me for help! No, I will not do your reading for you.'
       Folding his hands in his lap, closing his eyes, looking more like the Buddha than ever, ageless, sexless, Maximov nods. 'Thank you,' he murmurs. 'Now you must go.'
       He emerges into a crowded ante-room. How long has he been closeted with Maximov? An hour? Longer? The bench is full, there are people lounging against the walls, people in the corridors too, where the smell of fresh paint is stifling. All talk ceases; eyes turn on him without sympathy. So many seeking justice, each with a story to tell!
       It is nearly noon. He cannot bear the thought of returning to his room. He walks eastward along Sadovaya Street. The sky is low and grey, a cold wind blows; there is ice on the ground and the footing is slippery. A gloomy day, a day for trudging with the head lowered. Yet he cannot stop himself, his eyes move restlessly from one passing figure to the next, searching for the set of the shoulders, the lilt to the walk, that belongs to his lost son. By his walk he will recognize him: first the walk, then the form.
       He tries to summon up Pavel's face. But the face that appears to him instead, and appears with surprising vividness, is that of a young man with heavy brows and a sparse beard and a thin, tight mouth, the face of the young man who sat behind Bakunin on the stage at the Peace Congress two years ago. His skin is cratered with scars that stand out livid in the cold. 'Go away!' he says, trying to dismiss the image. But it will not go. 'Pavel!' he whispers, conjuring his son in vain.

 . . . .

There is a letter on his bed, propped against the pillow. For a wild instant he thinks it is from Pavel, spirited into the room. But the handwriting is a child's. 'I tried to draw Pavel Aleskandrovich,' it reads (the name misspelled), 'but I could not do it right. If you want to put it on the shrine you can. Matryona.' On the reverse is a pencil-drawing, somewhat smudged, of a young man with a high forehead and full lips. The drawing is crude, the child knows nothing about shading; nevertheless, in the mouth and particularly in the bold stare, she has unmistakably captured Pavel.
       'Yes,' he whispers, 'I will put it on the shrine.' He brings the image to his lips, then stands it against the candle-holder and lights a new candle.
       He is still gazing into the flame when, an hour later, Anna Sergeyevna taps at the door. 'I have your laundry,' she says.
       'Come in. Sit down.'
       'No, I can't. Matryosha is restless—I don't think she is well.' Nevertheless she sits down on the bed.
       'They are keeping us good, these children of ours,' he remarks.
       'Keeping us good?'
       'Seeing to our morals. Keeping us apart.'
       It is a relief not to have the dining-table between them. The candlelight, too, brings a comforting softness.
       'I am sorry you have to leave,' she says, 'but perhaps it will be better for you to get away from this sad city. Better for your family too. They must be missing you. And you must be missing them.'
       'I will be a different person. My wife will not know me. Or she will think she knows me, and be wrong. A difficult time for everyone, I foresee. I shall be thinking of you. But as whom? — that is the question. Anna is my wife's name too.'
       'It was my name before it was hers.' Her reply is sharp, without playfulness. Again it is borne home to him: if he loves this woman, then in part it is because she is not young. She has crossed a line that his wife has yet to come to. She may or may not be dearer, but she is nearer.
       The erotic tug returns, even stronger than before. A week ago they were in each other's arms in this same bed. Can it be that at this moment she is not thinking of that?
       He leans across and lays a hand on her thigh. With the laundry on her lap, she bows her head. He shifts closer. Between thumb and forefinger he grips her bared neck, draws her face toward his. She raises her eyes: for an instant he has the impression he is looking into the eyes of a cat, wary, passionate, greedy.
       'I must go,' she murmurs. Wriggling loose, she is gone.
       He wants her acutely. More: he wants her not in this narrow child's-bed but in the widow-bed in the next room. He imagines her as she lies there now beside her daughter, her eyes open and glistening. She belongs, he realizes for the first time, to a type he has never written into his books. The women is used to are not without an intensity of their own, but it is an intensity all of skin and nerves. Their sensations are intense, electric, immediate, of the surface. Whereas with her he goes into a body that bleeds, a visceral body whose sensations occur deep within himself.
       Is it a feature that can be translated to, or cultivated in, other women? In his wife? Is there a quality of sensation he has been freed to find elsewhere now that he has found it in her?
       What treachery?
       If he were more confident of his French he would channel this disturbing excitement into a book of the kind one cannot publish in Russia — something that could be finished off in a hurry, in two or three weeks, even without a copyist — ten signatures, three hundred pages. A book of the night, in which every excess would be represented and no bounds respected. A book that would never be linked to him. The manuscript mailed from Dresden to Paillard in Paris, to be printed clandestinely and sold under the counter on the Left Bank. Memoirs of a Russian Nobleman. A book that she, Anna Sergeyevna, its true begetter, would never see. With a chapter in which the noble memoirist reads aloud to the young daughter of his mistress a story of the seduction of a young girl in which he himself emerges more and more clearly as having been the seducer. A story full of intimate detail and innuendo which by no means seduces the daughter but on the contrary frightens her and disturbs her sleep and makes her so doubtful of her own purity that three days later she gives herself up to him in despair, in the most shameful of ways, in a way of which no child could conceive were the history of her own seduction and surrender and the manner of it doing not deeply impressed on her beforehand.
       Imaginary memoirs. Memories of the imagination.
       Is that the answer to his question to himself? Is that what she is stetting him free to do: to write a book of evil? And to what end? To liberate himself from evil or to cut himself off from good?
       Not once in this long reverie, it occurs to him (the whole house has fallen into silence by now), has he given a thought to Pavel. And now, here he returns, whining, pale, searching for a place to lay his head! Poor child! The festival of the senses that would have been his inheritance stolen away from him! Lying in Pavel's bed, he cannot refrain from a quiver of dark triumph.

 . . . .

'I have been summoned again by the police in connection with Pavel's papers. I am hoping that the business will be settled once and for all tomorrow.'
       They walk for a while in silence. Anna Sergeyevna seems preoccupied. At last she speaks, 'Is there a particular reason why you must have those papers?'
       'I am surprised that you ask. What else of himself has Pavel left behind? Nothing is more important to me than those papers. They are his word to me.' And then, after a pause: 'Did you know he was writing a story?'
       'He wrote stories. Yes, I knew.'
       'The one I am thinking of was about an escaped convict.'
       'I don't know that one. He would sometimes read what he was writing to Matryosha and me, to see what we thought. But not a story about a convict.'
       'I didn't realize there were other stories.'
       'Oh yes, there were stories. Poems too — but he was shy about showing those to us. The police must have taken them when they took everything else. They were in his room a long time, searching. I didn't tell you. They even lifted the floorboards and looked under them. They took every scrap of paper.'
       'Is that how Pavel occupied himself, then — with writing?'
       She glances at him oddly. 'How else did you think?'
       He bites back a quick reply.
       'With a writer for a father, what do you expect?' she goes on.
       'Writing does not go in families.'
       'Perhaps not. I am no judge. But he need not have intended to write for a living. Perhaps it was simply a way of reaching his father.'
       He makes a gesture of exasperation. I would have loved him without stories! he thinks. Instead he says: 'One does not have to earn the love of one's father.'
       She hesitates before she speaks again. 'There is something I should warn you of, Fyodor Mikhailovich. Pavel made a certain cult of his father — of Alexander Isaev, I mean. I would not mention it if I did not expect you will find traces of it in his papers. You must be tolerant. Children like to romanticize their parents. Even Matryona —'
       'Romanticize Isaev? Isaev was a drunkard, a nobody, a bad husband. His wife, Pavel's own mother, could not abide him by the end. She would have left him had he not died first. How does one romanticze a person like that?'
       'By seeing him through a haze, of course. It was hard for Pavel to see you through a haze. You were, if I may say so, too immediate to him.'
       'That was because I was the one who had to bring him up day by day. I made him my son when everyone else had left him behind.'
       'Don't exaggerate. His own parents didn't leave him behind, they died. Besides, if you had the right to choose him as a son, why had he no right to choose a father for himself?'

 . . . .

'If you don't write, we'll have to write for you.
       'What do you say? Write for me?'
       'And sign my name?'
       'Sign your name too — we'll have no alternative.'
       'No one will accept that. No one will believe you.'
       'Students will believe — you have quite a following among the students, as I told you. Particularly if they don't have to read a fat book to get the message. Students will believe anything.'  . . .
       'So forgery is permitted. Everything is permitted.'
       'Why not? There's nothing new in that. Everything is permitted for the sake of the future — even believers say so. I wouldn't be surprised if it's in the Bible.'  .   .
       'You are tempting God. If you gamble on God's mercy you will certainly be lost. Don't even think the thought — pay heed to me! — or you will fall.' .   .  .
       'Eighteen centuries have passed since God's age, nearly nineteen! We are on the brink of a new age where we are free to think any thought. There is nothing we can't think! Surely you know that. You must know it — it's what Raskolnikov said in your own book before he fell ill!'
       'You are mad, you don't know how to read,' he mutters. But he has lost and he knows it. He has lost because, in this debate, he does not believe himself. And he does not believe himself because he has lost. Everything is collapsing: logic, reason. He stares at Nechaev and sees only a crystal winking in the light of the desert, self-enclosed, impregnable.  .  .  .

'So I will make a bargain with you,' he pushes on. 'I will write for your press after all. I will tell the truth, the whole truth in one page, as you require. My condition is that you print it as it stands, without changing a word, and send it out.'
       'Done!' Nechaev positively glows with triumph. 'I like bargains. Give him pen and paper!'
       The other man lays a board over the composing table and sets out paper.
       He writes: 'On the night of October 12th, in the year of our Lord 1869, my stepson Pavel Alexandrovich Isaev fell to his death from the shot tower on Stolyarny Quay. A rumour has been circulated that his death was brought about by the Third Section of the Imperial Police. This rumour is a wilful fabrication. I believe that my stepson was murdered by his false friend Sergei Gennadevich Nechaev.
       'May god have mercy on his soul.
       'F.M. Dostoevsky.
       'November 18th, 1869.'
       Trembling lightly, he hands over the paper to Nechaev.
       'Excellent!' says Nechaev, and passes it to the other man. 'The truth, as seen by a blind man.'
       'Print it.'
       'Set it,' Nechaev commands the other.
       The other gives him a steady interrogative look. 'Is it true?'
       'Truth? What is the truth?' Nechaev screams in a voice that makes the cellar ring. 'Set it!' We have wasted enough time!'
       In this moment it becomes clear that he has fallen into a trap.
       'Let me change something,' he says. He takes the paper back, crumples it, thrusts it into his pocket. Nechaev makes no attempt to stop him. 'Too late, no recanting,' he says. 'You wrote it, before a writness. We'll print it as I promised, word for word.'
       A trap, a devilish trap. He is not after all, as he had thought, a figure from the wings inconveniently intruding into a quarrel between his stepson and Sergei Nechaev the anarchist. Pavel's death was merely the bait to lure him from Dresden to Petersburg. He has been the quarry all the time.

~ . ~