Dostoevsky: language, faith and fiction
Rowan Williams
Continuum, 2008, £16.99, Hardback, 268 p., ISBN 9781847064257

Rowan Williams’ study of Dostoevsky’s fiction paints ‘a picture of what faith or the lack of it would look like in the political and social world of his [Dostoevsky’s] day’ (p.4). So, although it is a close literary study of character,structure and language, it is also a powerful commentary on the big issues – evil, suffering, and the failure of social relations – totally relevant to our society.

Williams writes as an academic, admittedly a non-specialist, and for the serious student, so this is not an easy read but one with many hidden gems. He approaches Dostoevsky’s fiction through the work of a Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote during the Russian revolution, yet hung on to his Russian Orthodox faith Bakhtin sees fiction as the dialogue between many interacting and conflicting voices. The novel is then a richly textured mix of styles, voices, language with different levels of meaning.

Williams explores the many contradictory elements in Dostoevsky’s novels – particularly if viewed simply as ‘Christian’ novels (noting Dostoevsky describes himself as a ‘child of unbelief’). Williams’ great strength (as well as perhaps the source of misunderstanding) is his deep integrity which prompts him to weigh all possible points of view . By doing so he identifies the way Dostoevsky wrote ‘for the cause of faith’ by showing us its opposites, exploring the tension between good and evil, the ‘devils’ and the ‘saints’. He looks at how key actions in the novels (for example, two instances of the exchange of crucifixes in Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot) symbolise the ‘moral and spiritual change’, of ‘Taking up the cross with and for another’ (p. 153).

He indicates that fiction may, by its very ambiguity and complexity, be more ‘true’ than straight apologetics. In recent LCF conferences we have looked at the power and possibilities of story. In this book Williams defines and explores those ‘stories which create a spiritual and moral landscape’ and which make ‘the holy visible in narratives’ (p. 161).

Contributed by: Margaret Keeling, MA, MCLIP, PhD, CLIS President who worked, until her retirement, as Head of Services for Libraries, Culture and Adult Community Learning for Essex County Council.