Russian Literature in South Africa: J. M. Coetzee's Reading/Writing of Dostoevskij

Cary Henson, Indiana University; University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

While the oeuvre of Fedor Dostoevskij has had, of course, a significant impact on writers virtually worldwide over the last 100-plus years, of all the places where one would expect to find traces of this influence, South Africa in the late twentieth century would seem one of the least likely, given that the country has little, if any, historical, ethnic, or cultural connections that might tie it to things Russian. Nonetheless, Dostoevskij has indeed played a major role in the work of one of South Africa's most important authors--J. M. Coetzee. Most became aware of this influence following the publication of Coetzee's 1994 novel The Master of Petersburg, which provides a fictional account of the life of Dostoevskij leading up to his writing of Besy (The Devils). Since that time, many scholars, both Slavists and non-Slavists, have provided critical readings of the novel; however, no one has yet taken fully into account the diverse and significant ways in which Dostoevskij figures in Coetzee's fiction and criticism as a whole.

Therefore, I would like to position a reading of this novel within a broader, more in-depth perspective by exploring two related issues: first, Coetzee's important reading of Dostoevskij in his critical and theoretical essays, and, second, Coetzee's use in some of his earlier novels of a narrative situation employed by Dostoevskij. More specifically, I demonstrate Coetzee's longstanding critical interest in Dostoevskij, focusing on the important essay "Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, and Dostoevsky." I then suggest that the story "A Gentle Creature" may in fact represented a key, and neglected, intertext for some of Coetzee's novels (In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians, in particular). Finally, I utilize this framework to re-consider Coetzee's treatment of Dostoevskij in The Master of Petersburg.

In summary, I hope that my paper can contribute in several ways: 1) outlining the reading of Dostoevskij by one of the most significant contemporary novelists and critics; 2) explicating an as yet unacknowledged connection between their fiction; and 3) addressing the larger question of why a nineteenth-century Russian literary giant should be so influential for a white South African writing during and after apartheid.