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)