How to write

Anyone who plans to write seriously might read The Master of Petersburg by Nobel-prizewinning South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. I picked it up because it was about my hero Dostoevsky, returning to Peterburg to grieve the death of his politically radical stepson. I expected to scoff at Coetzee’s hubris.
Think about it. How would you venture to portray a transcendent genius, using his own medium no less, let alone get inside his head: “Oh Fyodor, you have such dark thoughts!”
Some of the holes I’d have fallen into: I’d have painted a panoramic vision of the high and low life of 19th century Peterburg, with a nod to the vastness of the country whose blood was spilled building it; I’d have grappled with somehow conveying the Rusianness of the characters; I’d have tried to show Dostoevsky directly involved in the writing process; I’d have overdramatized in vulgar ways his epileptic fits and their effect on onlookers.
Not how a master like Coetzee does it. Not even bothering to ever name Dostoevsky, he takes us directly inside him. Everything is the writer’s internal world and his body’s experiences. (The narrative could easily be changed to first person, except that it might add a touch of off-putting narcissistic self-absorption to the desperate writer’s grief.) We encounter only what Dostoevsky registers as he moves within his restricting globe of grief: the cast of characters is tiny, the geographical area confined to roughly the same neighborhood of Peterburg as Crime and Punishment. Coetzee barely mentions the “color” details that would identify the people or the city as Russian.
Instead we take Peterburg and Russia and genius for granted because we breathe them with the air Dostoevsky breathed, even if he sometimes wished for another destiny. The content is so personal yet universal, the writing so intensely alive that the occasional superfluous word or patch of stilted dialog feels like a slap in the face. How could a writer as good as Coetzee ever slip?
It turns out The Master of Petersburg is about the terrible prize a genius pays to create transcendent art: It involves living each moment with an intensity the rest of us couldn’t tolerate. The rest of us are cowards.

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