BOOK REVIEW / Dostoyevsky and drains: Anthony Quinn follows J M Coetzee on a mysterious journey through St Petersburg: 'The Master of Petersburg' - J M Coetzee: Secker & Warburg, 14.99 pounds

Set in the autumn of 1869, J M Coetzee's novel dreams up an episode in the life of a senior Russian novelist. Travelling under a false passport from Dresden, his place of exile, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky - for it is he - arrives in St Petersburg on a mission of purest melancholy. He is here to collect the papers and personal effects of his dead stepson, Pavel.

Visiting the dingy tenement where Pavel had been lodging, the writer feels compelled to stay there himself, convulsed with grief and confused about the circumstances of his beloved stepson's death. Did he kill himself, or was he murdered by the Tsarist police, who suspected him, with good reason, of seditious behaviour?

Coetzee sets up this highly seductive mystery within the first 50 pages, but thereafter it becomes apparent that his book has larger ambitions in view. The Master of Petersburg is a sombre study in moral responsibility and the creative impulse, and focuses upon the disjunction between what a writer can see and how much of it he can actually portray, or choose to portray.

Dostoevsky the man is seen as a hesitant, grieving, rather depleted character, prey to bouts of falling sickness as he tramps the gloomy, squalid streets of St Petersburg in search of clues. Some of those clues, he suspects, lie buried in the hearts of Pavel's landlady and her knowing daughter, Matryona, who regards him, distressingly, as an interloper: in her presence 'he is keenly aware that his clothes have begun to smell, that his skin is dry and flaky, that the dental plates he wears click when he talks'. All this and haemorrhoids, too.

Coetzee's alertness to physical deliquescence is acute, particularly in regard to its smell: we are never done with smells 'of drains and fish-offal' and 'a smell of damp plaster, damp brick', or worse, 'a smell of putrid fish' and 'ordure and mouldering masonry'.

Yet these emanations all seem to mask something more sinister, something that can resist detection: the odour of a corrupting soul. Coetzee's design is two-pronged. We see first the weak-willed philanderer, persuading Anna, the landlady, into his bed and so betraying his young wife back in Dresden.

But his conscience is assailed by a rather less forgiving character than himself. He is Nechaev, revolutionary activist, ideologue and scourge of the Tsarist authorities; it was his charismatic spell that led Pavel to join the underground struggle and, perhaps, sacrifice his life. Nechaev, described as 'a piper with troop of swine dancing at his heels' taunts Dostoevsky as a complacent has-been, 'a dry old work horse at the end of his life', who lives like a parasite on the wretchedness of others. Coetzee dramatises their conflict in a long duelling exchange, conspirator and novelist each fighting his corner in a dank cellar beneath the bustle of St Petersburg.

How can the writer sit back while a nation suffers? Nechav asks him, 'Isn't it time you tried to share the existence of the oppressed instead of sitting at home and writing about them and counting your money?' Repelled as he is by the young man's fanaticism, Dostoevsky reluctantly hears another's voice behind it - Pavel's.

This is the central antipathy of The Master of Petersburg, not, as it first seems, the conflict between anarchy and rule, but that between father and son. Dostoevsky's father was, it transpires, a tyrant hated by his workers; now, leafing through his late stepson's private papers, he is forced to recognise how much he himself was despised by Pavel. His own gloominess and parsimony were the spark to the boy's resentment; it took Nechaev and his crude political demagoguery to fan it into a flame. The hideous image of a father cannibalising his child is dramatically reversed as Nechaev warns him:

'When they look at you, do you know what these hollow-eyed children see? . . . They see fat cheeks and a juicy tongue. These innocents would fall upon you like rats and chew you up if they did not know you were strong enough to beat them off.'

Coetzee's novel is strewn with similarly feral images, of possession, of seizure, of desperate means and violent ends. It is composed with great elegance and feeling, which made me wonder why I didn't enjoy it more.

Certainly his reputation is formidable, as the plaudits for two previous novels on the dustjacket attest - 'an astonishing book', 'a truly astonishing novel', 'a magnificent and unforgettable work', 'an astonishingly powerful story'. Praise indeed, and one imagines that more of the same verbal bouquets will be handed out to The Master of Petersburg. So I feel bound to register a feeling of disappointment that I wasn't quite so, well, astonished by it all. The writing is impeccable, but actually rather dull. Coetzee's fondness for inversion - 'Imaginary memoirs. Memories of the imagination', or 'Because I am he. Because he is I' and so on - left me cold, as did the long anguished dialogues between the novelist and Nechaev.

More damagingly, the book never manages to vary its tone, which is one of louring gloom, appropriate to a novel preoccupied with death and decay, but quite a test when unrelieved. There may have been little cause for jollity in mid-19th-century St Petersburg, but one hopes that J M Coetzee will accept that even the author of Crime and Punishment could laugh too.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness