Monday, August 13, 2007

The Master of Petersburg 3

As I mentioned in the comments to my first post on Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg, JMC's Dostoevsky is not as forgiving of his stepson's story as he suggests in the passage I quoted in that post. Here's what comes up later in the book:

"There was more real life in the filthy, waddling old bear in his story — what was his name? Karamzin? — than in the priggish hero he so painfully constructed."

Here, JMC's Dostoevsky is clearly "at a distance and jeering" rather than "giving himself up" to the story at hand.

Later, he argues with Pavel's anarchist friend Nechaev, who appeals to the writer's own work to make a point:

"'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."

Again, JMC's Dostoevsky claims that another character does not "know how to read," but the combination of these two passages with his own "reading" of his stepson's story make clear that these statements about "how to read" are ironized by the complete context of JMC's book.

So as so often in his work, ideas are argued about, but it becomes nearly impossible to pin them down as having any validity as generalizations. As in Kundera, the ideas are as much "thought experiments" as anything else: what kind of person would have such ideas? And how would that person use these ideas in argument to persuade others? What kind of life might be connected to those ideas?

For the ultimate example of such a book, I just reread Notes from Underground for the first time since the spring of 1983 (freshman year at Stanford). I thought about posting some comments, but everything in the book is so unstable because of the narrator's claim to extreme unreliability that the only way to comment on it is to write a long essay about it! Little tidbit observations like my JMC comments over the past few weeks just don't feel right.

So here's one last tidbit from The Master of Petersburg:

"He sits with the pen in his hand, holding himself back from a descent into representations that have no place in the world, on the point of toppling, enclosed within a moment in which all creation lies open at his feet, the moment he loosens his grip and begins to fall. / It is a moment of which he is becoming a connoisseur, a voluptuary. For which he will be damned."

One last moment of "holding himself back", here not as reader but as writer, only to then "give himself up" to the writing, as he asked Maximov to do when reading. What comes out, in JMC's version of Petersburg, is Dostoevsky's Demons, but what strikes me here is the sensuality and physicality of the act of writing itself, of becoming lost in it, of being able to write what "has no place in the world" not because it is something transgressive but because you are creating the place for it through what you write.

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