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0352 | The Master of Petersburg | J. M. Coetzee

0352 | The Master of Petersburg | J. M. Coetzee

Context: Took my laptop to pieces to give it a clean while I read this. This included removing all the keys off the keyboard. It was disgusting under there!


This was a strange one, quite the most unusual Coetzee from the ones I’ve read before (Disgrace, Michael K, Heart of the Country, Youth). For a start it didn’t involve South Africa at any point. Neither was it a contemporary time period. But it was laced with the usual dark, foreboding analysis of the human condition we’ve come to expect from the Nobel Prize-Winner.

The novel is set, as the title might reveal, in St Petersburg, Russia although I was half-inclined to think that it might have been a reference to a South African town. It’s set in the 19th century. It opens with a man grieving the untimely death of his son.

As the novel progresses, what started initially as a simple visit to the city turns into a protracted affair. The death is more mysterious than the father thinks. The police get involved. The identity of the father adds a further twist and, as per most Coetzee, there’s plenty of badly-performed, guilt-ridden sexual encounters.

You don’t really enjoy a Coetzee book. They’re usually too brutally honest to be enjoyed. Did I appreciate it? Yes. But I can’t tell you much about why without giving away some of the plot. Suffice to say that the large body of Russian literature I’ve read was a particular help to me. I thought Coetzee did an amazing job of creating the character of the father and weaving him into the story.

Not my favourite Coetzee at all but for those of you who are already drawn to his novels, try this one to get a welcome glimpse of his diverse ability.


October, 1869.


What a poseur! What a hypocrite! The People’s Vengeance indeed! Yet he cannot deny that a certain gaiety is creeping into his own heart, a gaiety he recognizes, the gaiety of the spendthrift husband. Of course they are something to be ashamed of, these reckless bouts of his. Of course, when he comes home stripped bare and confesses to his wife and bows his head and endures her reproaches and vows he will never lapse again, he is sincere. But at the bottom of his heart, beneath the sincerity, where only God can see, he knows he is right and she is wrong. Money is there to be spent, and what form of spending is purer than gambling?


Being alive is, at this moment, a kind of nausea. He wants to be dead. More than that: to be extinguished, annihilated.

…reading is giving yourself up, not holding yourself at a distance and jeering.

Her words, like a prism, have only to be shifted slightly in their angle to reflect a quite different meaning.

In Russia, you cannot afford to be a delicate flower. In Russia you must be a burdock or a dandelion.

Stories [as opposed to parables] can be about other people; you are not obliged to find a place for yourself in them.


It tastes like gall.


0352 | The Master of Petersburg | Coetzee | 71% | Very Good

Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style Read more about how I come up with my ratings

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