Poet, Jeweler, Gambler: J.M. Coetzee’s Biofictional Dostoevsky in ‘The Master of Petersburg’

by Laura Cernat

The North American Dostoevsky Society stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our statement can be read here.

Canonical writers from past centuries have often been refashioned as literary characters in the last five decades, and Dostoevsky is no exception, featuring as a character in novels ranging from Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden (1982) to Jan Brokken’s De kozakkentuin [The Cossack Garden] (2015). However, what stands out in the most acclaimed Dostoevsky biofiction, The Master of Petersburg (1994), is the ability of its author, the Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, to use Dostoevsky’s figure not for its iconic appeal but for the force of the ethical and poetological tensions it engenders. My text builds on a reading of Dostoevsky’s own insights into his creative method, developed in his letters and notebooks, to propose a new interpretation of Coetzee’s deliberately skewed portrayal of the writer.

Dostoevsky fashioned a personal model of creativity, dividing the writing process into two steps: the poet’s vision and the craftsman’s toil. This was partly a response to the difficulties he encountered in delivering his groundbreaking ideas in the expected form of smooth prose (and to various accusations of stylistic imperfection [1]). In the leadup to abandoning his projected “Life of a Great Sinner” and starting work on Demons, he wrote to Apollon Maikov that

[…] a poem is like a natural precious stone, a diamond in the poet’s soul, complete in all its essence, and so this is the first act of the poet, as a maker and creator […] it is not he who is the actual creator but rather life itself, the mighty essence of life, God […] Then comes the poet’s second act, no longer so profound and mysterious, but only his artistic performance: once he has received the diamond he must polish and mount it. At this point the poet is not much more than a jeweler. [2]

Dostoevsky, Letter to Apollon Maikov, 15/27 May 1869

The contrast between the poet and the “jeweler” or “artist” recurs in the notebooks for A Raw Youth [The Adolescent], where Dostoevsky writes in full capitals that the “poet’s job” is to “acquire […] strong impressions”, while the “artist’s job” is to “develop” them into “a theme, a plan, a harmonious whole” [3]. Bearing resonances of the Ancient Greek belief in the poet’s “divine possession”, but also of the Romantic cult of inspiration, and anticipating Marcel Proust’s opposition between the creator’s “profound self” and the “social self” that one displays in company [4], the poet-jeweler dichotomy was at the core of Jacques Catteau’s interpretation of Dostoevsky’s artistic evolution, centered on the unfinished “Life of a Great Sinner” and the meandering, heteroclite A Raw Youth. Catteau describes the former as “an attempt […] [t]o construct a harmonious work, without mutilating his art by false simplification, […] a novel which would preserve the whole vision […]:the dream of an artist raised to the height of poet” [5], while the latter is presented as “exploding other novels and gathering them together in one gigantic puzzle” [6].

Although the counter-hagiography did not see the light of print as intended, the theory about poets and jewelers is implicitly revisited in The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee’s counterfactual biofiction of Dostoevsky. Coetzee’s novel is a touching anatomy of the relationship between writing and mourning, as it depicts Dostoevsky’s quest, in the murky political climate of St Petersburg, for the real explanation of his stepson’s untimely death. Confronting both the bureaucratic, evasive authorities and their nihilistic adversaries (notably the historically based revolutionary Sergey Nechaev), the writer realizes that the only means within his power to address the crisis he experiences is the exercise of his craft, perilous as his stubbornness may be for those close to him, notably his (fictional) landlady Anna Sergeyevna and her daughter, Matryona. Several critics [7] have drawn attention to Coetzee’s many departures from the historical record, starting with imagining Dostoevsky back in Russia when in reality he was abroad, continuing with the supposed murder of Pavel, his stepson, who actually outlived Dostoevsky, and including other subtle but significant changes like alterations to the geography of the city [8] or the insertion in the characters’ monologues of parables from The Brothers Karamazov [9](not yet written in 1869 when the novel is set). To this we could add that Nechaev himself was in Moscow, where he orchestrated the death of the student Ivanov (which provided the inspiration for Dostoevsky’s Demons), and not in St Petersburg, where Coetzee places him. However, what seems more interesting from today’s vantage point is not that biofiction can make over writers’ lives into the wildest fantastic scenarios (this has happened time and again from Saramago’s 1984 The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis to Maggie Gee’s 2014 Virginia Woolf in Manhattan), but that Coetzee, almost uniquely among biofiction writers, reinvents not only Dostoevsky’s life but also his texts.

Writing over the drafts of the master, Coetzee produces two fragments that eerily echo “At Tikhon’s” (the censored chapter which was published only posthumously in 1922) and the Marya Lebyadkina subplot from Demons, while also strategically altering them. At first glance, the main difference between Dostoevsky’s drafts and the ones invented by Coetzee is the more veiled approach, in the latter’s prose, to Stavrogin’s horrendous pedophilic act. However, upon closer scrutiny, what is most striking is the fundamental ambiguity of these fragments. Though Stavrogin is the eponymous character of Coetzee’s final chapter, his name does not appear in the body of the chapter [10] – an ellipsis which calls into question the reader’s instinctive identification between the unnamed character of the fragments and Dostoevsky’s enigmatic protagonist. A key element that further weakens the identification is the appearance of a name from another novel by Dostoevsky, Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment. If the character who we assume is Stavrogin (because of the references to the white suit and to Switzerland) “remembers Svidrigailov” and his remark that “women like to be humiliated”[11], we find ourselves in an ontologically twisted realm, where different fictional universes bleed into each other through a technique that Sabine Schlickers called “horizontal metalepsis of enunciation” [12].

Another way to read this piece of eclectic Dostoevskian apocrypha is to assume that an even more complex transposition is at hand: Coetzee is not reconstructing the creative process behind “At Tikhon’s”, nor having his Dostoevsky reimagine Crime and Punishment in even more somber tones, nor building pathways connecting two of Dostoevsky’s darkest novels. He is, instead, trying to delve into the abyss of ethical extremes from which the “Life of the Great Sinner” was meant to spring, and to recover the very image of the Sinner. He is rearranging the “gigantic puzzle” of Dostoevsky’s novels with the missing piece right at the center. But if Dostoevsky saw his Great Sinner as quintessentially human, encompassing all extremes, while preserving a certain naïveté in his quest for a strong enough idea [13], Coetzee’s character has an otherworldly coldness which exceeds even Stravogin’s showy indifference: his pure impersonality strikes one as “coming face to face with something huge and cold and grey that […] with the passing of ages has retreated into stone, that does not belong in his world”, a frightful figure because “in it he detects no love, only the cold and massive indifference of stone” (Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg, 240). Could this alteration of the nineteenth-century master’s most enigmatic creation be connected to the manner in which Coetzee, by contrast with Dostoevsky, relates to the process of writing? This thought is certainly worth entertaining, particularly as the theme of the materiality of writing had appeared in Coetzee’s previous works, for instance in his other biofiction Foe (1986), in which the female character Susan meditates, echoing Virginia Woolf, on the effects of practical conditions upon the tone of stories [14].

The Life of a Great Sinner was envisioned as the work of a jeweler, a long-running project, perhaps Dostoevsky’s last novel, the size of War and Peace [15]. By contrast, about Demons the writer confessed: “no doubt I shall write it badly; being more a poet than an artist, I have always tackled themes beyond my powers. And so I’ll make a mess of it, that’s sure. The theme is too powerful.” (Dostoevsky, Selected Letters, 343-344) As Dostoevsky explains in his correspondence, sacrificing the poet’s vision and “making a mess” was the unfortunate consequence of working under the constraints of time and money: “inspiration depends to a large degree on time”(Selected Letters,337), so sometimes rushing the execution results in painfully “spoil[ing] an idea that [he had] given birth to” (232). Pragmatic reasons often prevailed, as editorial interests imposed prioritizing “a novel that is effective” and therefore “more profitable” over the “essence”, which is “beautiful in the original concept” (289).

Dostoevsky’s ambivalence towards money [16] introduces another figure in the equation between poet and jeweler: the gambler. Discussing The Idiot with Maikov, the writer conceded: “I took a chance, like at roulette: ‘Maybe it will develop as I write it!’ That is a quite unforgivable thing to do.” (Selected Letters, 262). Though he perpetually lamented having to write for deadlines and under the pressure of material concerns, this became part of his creative process. There was always a seed of the gambler in the young man who, as early as 1845, brazenly declared that he might hang himself (Selected Letters, 26) or jump into the Neva (29) if his novel did not get published. But how did Dostoevsky manage to turn this perpetual gambling for the vital stakes of time and money into a fount of creativity? Judging by the writer’s numerous last-minute writing feats, it seems like the gambler became, for him, an emergency alternative to the jeweler he aspired to be. Although initially a survival tactic, betting on inspiration gradually became a way for Dostoevsky to assert his confidence in his creative gift.

Page from Dostoevsky’s notebook for Demons

Building on the symbolic meanings of the writer’s notorious gambling spells, Coetzee imagines his fictional Dostoevsky’s creative work as “gambl[ing] to make God speak” (The Master of Petersburg, 237). Throughout the novel the protagonist agonizes, but in the last chapter, when he does write, he does so “in a clear, careful script, crossing out not a word” (245). For anyone remotely familiar with Dostoevsky’s drafts, this sounds like another blatant distortion of the historical record. Not only are Dostoevsky’s notebooks filled with revisions, they are also, as Konstantin Barsht’s wonderful recent study of the author’s calligraphy [17] reveals, laden with meaningful sketches of faces and buildings which partake in the creative process. Though he mastered calligraphy, Dostoevsky was, by his own admission, “unable to avoid […] blots”, even in letters, even when recopying (Selected Letters, 230). Writing several pages without corrections was extremely rare for him.

My hypothesis about this new distortion is that Coetzee, who projects his own image onto the figure of Dostoevsky in several other ways, is experimenting with palimpsestically superimposing his creative process upon the Dostoevskian one. The contemporary author’s view of writing as “an activity [which] is neither beautiful nor consoling” but whose value resides in “industry” and “productiveness” [18] qualifies him as a writer in whom the jeweler prevails over the poet. The invented Dostoevsky fragments in The Master of Petersburg could therefore be read as the jeweler’s reconstruction of the poet’s vision. Where Dostoevsky had imagined that the craftsman would add, polish, and expand, Coetzee worked, in Beckettian fashion, through reduction and essentialization, showcasing the ethical knot at the heart of Demons. The experience of reading the fragments could be described as Dostoevskian without Dostoevsky’s fervor. They stage a lucid, dissecting, but dazzlingly dense reframing of the nineteenth-century writer’s universe. The stonelike coldness of the imagined literary archetype emphatically bears the traces of the exquisite craftsmanship of a jeweler-type writer. And yet, from those tenebrous waters he evokes, Coetzee summons more than a character; he summons a specter. Neither chiseling, nor dissection are what he longs for, but revival. Although he works with Dostoevsky’s imagery, he puts a different, almost incompatible soul in it. And to make that work, to give the novel its amazing power, its eerie intuition of interior abysses, the contemporary master needed to be more than a forger. Writing neatly, neither in Dostoevsky’s hand nor in his own, letting the words flow, giving himself over to possession, Coetzee’s author-figure makes room not for the poeta vates  but for the gambler. Only through him, “the hand that holds the pen begins to move. But the words it forms are not words of salvation” (The Master of Petersburg, 241). Instead of the poet’s ecstasy, the protagonist experiences the gambler’s perpetual doubt. Instead of divine inspiration, he feels the human need to hold on to the past, the impossibility of completing mourning. Coetzee turns these conditions into the jeweler’s very material. Having learned from Dostoevsky to use adverse circumstances, like exile, penury, and time-pressure, as fuel for creativity, Coetzee goes further and uses grief, not in a therapeutic way, yielding some sort of relief, but as a dark way of accessing fundamental truths. As the slanted image of the departed Pavel is fleshed out, the jeweler lives up to the poet. The jeweler has learned to use poet and gambler (the calculating gambler that Dostoevsky wrote about but could never be) to orchestrate a descent into unutterable shades of loss. A visionary without the satisfactions of the imagination, a conjurer of hazard without the hope of victory, Coetzee’s fictional Dostoevsky does not cross out words. But his cool precision, though opposed to the actual Dostoevsky’s feverish writing, leads along the same obscure paths to the same goal: an effort to understand the fully other.


[1] See Dostoevsky, Ferrante, and the Challenge of Writing Authentically.

[2] Dostoevsky, Letter to Apollon Maikov, 15/27 May 1869 (Selected Letters, 307-308).

[3] Dostoevsky, The Notebooks for A Raw Youth, 31.

[4]  Proust, Contre Sainte Beuve, 221-222.

[5] Catteau, Dostoyevsky and the Process of Literary Creation, 253.

[6] Catteau 262.

[7] Joseph Frank found the counterfactual elements misleading, David Attridge celebrated the undecidable moral dilemmas they engender, David Attwell saw them as structural for Coetzee’s stance on history, Anthony Uhlmann related them to Coetzee’s protest against censorship and his covert reaction to politics, Popescu and more recently Herbillon read them through a postcolonial grid, Dion commented on their intertextual transposition of Dostoevsky’s own themes.

[8] See Attwell, J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, 163 on the fictitiousness of the shot tower, a central element in the novel.

[9] See Frank, “The Rebel” (The New Republic, 16 October 1995), 55: the parable of the journey of the Mother of God to hell (Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg, 200-201) is inspired by an episode in The Brothers Karamazov.

[10] Attridge was the first to remark this peculiarity of the chapter in J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, 126.

[11]  This is a paraphrase of the following, significantly more nuanced line from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “there are occasions when women find it extremely agreeable to be insulted” (284).

[12] See Schlickers, in Pier and Schaeffer, Métalepses: entorses au pacte de la représentation, 154.

[13]  In the Notebooks for The Possessed, Dostoevsky speaks of the Great Sinner as a “primitive type”(67), endowed with an “immense, instinctive force, seeking nothing but peace, but agitated to the point of suffering” and ready to “veer into monstrous deviations and experiments, until it will finally come to rest upon so powerful an idea as to be fully proportional to their […] instinctive animal strength […]” (68).

[14] Coetzee, Foe, 127: “I wrote my memoir by candlelight in a windowless room, with the paper on my knee. Is that the reason, do you think, why my story was so dull […]?”

[15] Dostoevsky, Selected Letters, 331.

[16]  “[…] money is everything to me, I need it so badly, the filthy lucre!” (Selected Letters, 289).

[17] See Barsht, The Drawings and Calligraphy of Fyodor Dostoevsky: From Image to Word. Bergamo: Lemma Press, 2016.

[18] See Coetzee, J. M. ‘On Beauty and Consolation. Interview with Wim Kayzer’. Originally broadcast by VPRO, 2000.

Laura Cernat is an FWO (Flemish Research Foundation) postdoctoral researcher at KU Leuven, Belgium, who obtained her PhD with a thesis on the portrayal of canonical authors in biofiction. She has contributed to the volumes Virginia Woolf and Heritage (2017), Theory in the “Post” Era (2021), and Imagining Gender in Biographical Fiction (2022), has published in the journals Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly and Partial Answers, and has guest-edited a forthcoming issue of American Book Review on autofiction and autotheory.In September 2021 she organized the bilingual conference Biofiction as World Literature. She wrote a forthcoming book chapter about Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, part of the volume From Shakespeare to Autofiction: Approaches to Authorship after Barthes and Foucault, edited by Martin Procházka (UCL Press, 2024), where she expands some of the insights presented here.

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