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Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction

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Rowan Williams explores the beauty and intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of Dostoevsky, one of literature's most complex, and most misunderstood, authors. Rowan Williams explores the beauty and intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of Dostoevsky, one of literature's most complex, and most misunderstood, authors.


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Rowan Williams explores the beauty and intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of Dostoevsky, one of literature's most complex, and most misunderstood, authors. Rowan Williams explores the beauty and intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of Dostoevsky, one of literature's most complex, and most misunderstood, authors.

30 review for Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Very heavy lifting. However, if you like George Steiner (and I do), then you should like this. Rowan Williams (who is also the Archbishop of Canterbury), is a first-class literary critic. The only reason I didn't give this five stars, was that I found my interest wavering in the last third of the book. I've read most of Dostoevsky's works, but it's been many years, and Williams spends some considerable time discussing second tier characters and incidents that I just can't recall all that clearly Very heavy lifting. However, if you like George Steiner (and I do), then you should like this. Rowan Williams (who is also the Archbishop of Canterbury), is a first-class literary critic. The only reason I didn't give this five stars, was that I found my interest wavering in the last third of the book. I've read most of Dostoevsky's works, but it's been many years, and Williams spends some considerable time discussing second tier characters and incidents that I just can't recall all that clearly anymore. Still, if you're looking for stimulating discussions of the major novels, or moments (like the Grand Inquisitor portion of the Brothers K), you should find this a rewarding read. The Dostoevsky that emerges from this book is a great and innovative thinker, both as a novelist and as a Christian. There was nothing static about Dostoevsky's faith, it was dynamic and immediate. And it is this immediacy, often displayed in the dialogue between characters, that jumps off the pages of his great books. In fact, dialogue in Dostoevsky, Williams notes, is key. It reveals the continually unfolding self to others, and in this lies the potential for love and the hope for salvation.

  2. 4 out of 5

    David

    I am a huge fan of Dostoyevsky and I have appreciated the work of Rowan Williams in the past, so when i discovered this book, reading it was a no-brainer. But the other reviews I read here on Goodreads were correct - this is a difficult book. I was hoping for some insights on Dostoyevsky's work, which I got, but the book is really graduate-level literary criticism. Reading this demands a recollection of plot details from Dostoyevsky's four major works, so if you have not read them recently you m I am a huge fan of Dostoyevsky and I have appreciated the work of Rowan Williams in the past, so when i discovered this book, reading it was a no-brainer. But the other reviews I read here on Goodreads were correct - this is a difficult book. I was hoping for some insights on Dostoyevsky's work, which I got, but the book is really graduate-level literary criticism. Reading this demands a recollection of plot details from Dostoyevsky's four major works, so if you have not read them recently you may be hard-pressed to remember the scenes he is discussing. Honestly, early on I thought about giving up. But if you stick with it, even if you do not recall all the plot points Williams discusses, you do get some great insight into Dostoyevsky. I found most thought-provoking how Williams shows that Dostoyevsky does not tie off everything in great detail but instead leaves things open, demanding the reader to think. This is in contrast with the diabolical in his stories which seeks to control and bring an end to freedom. While the diabolical would shut down all conversation, the narrative drives us to keep it going, to give space to the other in their freedom and have continuing dialogue. So should you read it? If you are a fan of Dostoyevsky and have read his four major works, then sure, give it a shot. I gave it four stars because on merit it is worth four, maybe five stars. But I do wish there was a more accessible book for casual readers who want to see these themes in Dostoyevsky without reading a graduate level work of literary criticism. I assume there are such books, so i can't fault Williams for not writing one, I just am not familiar with them.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Reuben Woolley

    Dithered between 4 and 5 stars. This is a genuinely really good book on Dostoevsky and Christianity, and my only complaints with it can be reduced to the unavoidable fact that I am not Christian, and both the author and subject of this book are. I would, however, pose a pretty serious question to Williams about Dostoevsky’s racism and nationalism, and how he characterises them. They are not, as Williams tends to suggest, ‘obstacles’ to understanding Dostoevsky’s worthwhile image of Christianity: Dithered between 4 and 5 stars. This is a genuinely really good book on Dostoevsky and Christianity, and my only complaints with it can be reduced to the unavoidable fact that I am not Christian, and both the author and subject of this book are. I would, however, pose a pretty serious question to Williams about Dostoevsky’s racism and nationalism, and how he characterises them. They are not, as Williams tends to suggest, ‘obstacles’ to understanding Dostoevsky’s worthwhile image of Christianity: they are a serious and fundamental feature of his Christianity. It is impossible to separate Dostoevsky’s dislike for those who allow the mundane and material to take precedent over the transcendent/holy from his belief that Jewish people were fundamentally trapped in ‘mundane’ matters like material wealth. It is likewise wrong to see his repeated usage of ‘connection with the earth’ as *solely* a moment where a human brings themselves into contact with the world around them and acknowledges their place in communion with others: it is also deeply representative of his belief that Russia, and the Russian nation as a political entity, held a power and truth that was inherently greater than the power and truth of other nations, so much so that it had the right to dominate them through force. In Williams’ defence, this is an understanding that a reader is well-equipped to come to anyway, and it’s in the spirit of Dostoevsky (and Bakhtin, who Williams uses seriously and thoughtfully) that any understanding of this book is one that has to be come to in dialogue with it, not just by taking in its content at face value.

  4. 4 out of 5

    John

    Great book. Much to think over. Anyone meaning to read this needs to have a decent handle on the major and even secondary characters of the four primary novels. I've jotted down a few notes on each chapter in an effort to keep the ideas fresh. What I most appreciate about the book is the focus on the form of Dostoevsky's fiction as it is connected to his overall faith and view of the world. It isn't just the what of the novels that matter, but the how he puts it all together that makes them such Great book. Much to think over. Anyone meaning to read this needs to have a decent handle on the major and even secondary characters of the four primary novels. I've jotted down a few notes on each chapter in an effort to keep the ideas fresh. What I most appreciate about the book is the focus on the form of Dostoevsky's fiction as it is connected to his overall faith and view of the world. It isn't just the what of the novels that matter, but the how he puts it all together that makes them such profound works of art. In chapter 1, Williams begins with Dostoevsky's famous quote that in a debate between Christ and truth, he would choose Christ. Williams then traces the ideas and form of Dostoevsky's work, beginning with the Underground Man and culminating with an extensive discussion of The Brothers Karamazov, in an effort to make clear that through their distinctive form, the novels open a way for faith in the violent and ideologically driven modern world. For the Underground Man, freedom is essential, even if that means having the freedom to choose what is not good for us. Ivan Karamazov's Inquisitor offers one answer to the problems that come with such a choice: bowing down before a Christ driven by a desire to provide security for his people. Thus Christ becomes synonymous with the truth (a set of propositions), and in turn does violence to human freedom. However, with Christ's kiss of the Inquisitor, and its being modeled by Alyosha later in the novel, Ivan's parable fails. The free gesture of compassion flies in the face of the dominating power offered to Christ. Later, Ivan's encounter with the Devil reveals the presence of the irrational in humanity, and as such is able to call into question our allegiance to propositions, bringing us back into the narrative of our lives. And this is why Dostoevsky's fiction opens the way for faith--in its refusal to close of the narrative with simple resolutions, Dostoevsky calls the reader to engage with the narrative, a process that is possible only because of his refusal to tie off the story. We can find a way forward in fiction for both truth and Christ only when we consider neither over and passe, but ongoing and present. Chapter 2 focuses on the essence of the diabolical in Dostoevsky, bringing the bulk of its insight from his novel, Devils. In this chapter, Williams argues that the diabolical is the antithesis of freedom and choice. The "devils" in this novel seek to control others, to make them a part of a political or social movement, to bring them to a place where they give up their choice and go only with the diabolical. In this loss of choice, people fall into not just the antithesis of freedom, but also the antithesis of true Christian faith. Chapter 3 covers the way that dialogue functions in Dostoevsky's narratives to illustrate the freedom of the characters. These are people who enter into encounters with others. No one has the last word on the way things are, including, famously, the narrators, who in the last two novels are local personages who would in some cases have no way of knowing about an event through their own personal witness. In this fact though there is freedom, for if one does not have the last word, one cannot shut down the conversation. One must always seek the other, must always seek the truth. There is grace in the ongoing-ness of these "limited" characters. The connection between conversation and taking responsibility for the other marks the subject of chapter 4. Williams illustrates the different ways encounters play out by contrasting two exchanges of crosses in two different novels. Essentially, to take responsibility for another does not suggest that we take responsibility from someone else. Instead, taking responsibility for someone involves giving voice to them, speaking out in their behalf for what are truly their concerns while giving the other person space and time to truly be themselves. This is seen in contrast to the diabolical narrative which seeks to shut out freedom and ends in silence. The ongoing conversation with someone truly other opens the way for self-renewal for it opens a path out of ourselves. Chapter 5 concludes the book with a discussion of the way that holy images, or icons, function within Dostoevsky's fiction. Williams draws on a couple of primary examples of icons being blasphemed, leading to a recognition that the holy makes itself manifest in and through the material world. And since this is so, the author becomes an image-maker himself, crafting a narrative--just as true icons are rooted in historical narratives to tie them to the material world. Such image-making by the author leaves an open world, prepared for dialogue. If the author attempts to be too definitive, it steps outside the reality of the fictional world and fails to ring true as an icon.

  5. 4 out of 5

    James Klagge

    I wanted to like this book, but I did not. I have read virtually all of Dostoevsky and a good deal of secondary literature. To follow this book, you have to not only have read the 4 big novels (BK, C&P, Demons & Idiot), but also remember them well enough to recall scenes on demand. I found the book too dense and diffuse to appreciate. Reading this book feels like swimming underwater. You have little sense of overview or where you are, and the thoughts keep coming with no let-up or chance to take I wanted to like this book, but I did not. I have read virtually all of Dostoevsky and a good deal of secondary literature. To follow this book, you have to not only have read the 4 big novels (BK, C&P, Demons & Idiot), but also remember them well enough to recall scenes on demand. I found the book too dense and diffuse to appreciate. Reading this book feels like swimming underwater. You have little sense of overview or where you are, and the thoughts keep coming with no let-up or chance to take a breath. The chapters felt more like separate papers, not like a developing process. There is a conclusion-chapter, which helped a bit. But it felt more to me like a post hoc and ad hoc attempt to tie things together. At the end, all I can really say about the content is that D. sees the construction of a novel as somewhat analogous to God's creation of the world, with similar issues of freedom within constraint. I would recommend this only to professional scholars of D. Not for enthusiastic amateurs like myself.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ted

    The book may be a masterpiece in literary analysis, but it was way beyond my knowledge of or interest in Dostoevsky. I don't have enough training in literary analysis to appreciate this book and my interest in Dostoevsky is very simple. I've never been a great fan of Russian novels, but have found portions of Dostoevsky to be masterful. But I've been puzzled by the professional analysis of his writing. The only course I took in college which had us read something of Dostoevsky listed him as espo The book may be a masterpiece in literary analysis, but it was way beyond my knowledge of or interest in Dostoevsky. I don't have enough training in literary analysis to appreciate this book and my interest in Dostoevsky is very simple. I've never been a great fan of Russian novels, but have found portions of Dostoevsky to be masterful. But I've been puzzled by the professional analysis of his writing. The only course I took in college which had us read something of Dostoevsky listed him as espousing atheism. I have no idea why except that it seems to me many people want writers to be systematic and consistent in all they write. It is possible that Dostoevsky is pointing out that a world in which God is apprehended through faith defies being understood systematically or only by logic. Faith is not necessarily based on the best evidence, or the most evidence or even the most convincing evidence. People believe or disbelieve for many reasons not all of them logical, evidence based or without contradiction. Believers often live with ambivalence and ambiguity as due non-believers. Believers and non-believers are shaped by personal, subjective experiences. Religion is one thing which is not based purely in logic and reason and facts. To insist that all believers must be systematic in their thinking is to deny the experience of faith. Believers can be moved by or even convinced by poetry, beauty, art, music, creation itself all of which may or may not be logical.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Frazer MacDiarmid

    Incredible book. I've read most of the books RW discusses and still I found it difficult to keep up with his brilliant writing. Essential ancillary reading for Dostoevsky. Incredible book. I've read most of the books RW discusses and still I found it difficult to keep up with his brilliant writing. Essential ancillary reading for Dostoevsky.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Anthony

    rather disappointing from an 'intelligent' churchman. Williams starts by mentioning crucial importance of the famous Fonvizina letter, then quickly forgets it and argues the exact opposite of what it entails (the importance of beauty over truth). Although he refers to the importance of Bakhtin, he doesn't seem to have the measure of that guy either. For some reason (not hard to understand in a trendy vicar) he seems to have an animus against "The Idiot" (Myshkin in particular). I wrote to RW to expr rather disappointing from an 'intelligent' churchman. Williams starts by mentioning crucial importance of the famous Fonvizina letter, then quickly forgets it and argues the exact opposite of what it entails (the importance of beauty over truth). Although he refers to the importance of Bakhtin, he doesn't seem to have the measure of that guy either. For some reason (not hard to understand in a trendy vicar) he seems to have an animus against "The Idiot" (Myshkin in particular). I wrote to RW to express my misgivings (in 80pp of foolscap) but (understandably perhaps) never heard back

  9. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    One of my favorite books. Williams' literary and theological intelligence is on full display in this careful and nuanced reading of Dostoevsky. The Archbishop of Canterbury is able to use both his keen literary sensibilities and knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy (Williams wrote his doctoral thesis at Cambridge on the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky) to significant effect. Familiarity with Dostoevsky's major novels is required, and the book is dense at times, but well worth the effort. One of my favorite books. Williams' literary and theological intelligence is on full display in this careful and nuanced reading of Dostoevsky. The Archbishop of Canterbury is able to use both his keen literary sensibilities and knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy (Williams wrote his doctoral thesis at Cambridge on the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky) to significant effect. Familiarity with Dostoevsky's major novels is required, and the book is dense at times, but well worth the effort.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Griffin

    "[Dostoevsky] wants us to choose that humanity will survive - not merely as a biological but a cultural reality. And the culture he identifies as human is one in which we do not have to lie about what we are in relationship to our environment; a culture that insists upon a recognition of mortality and fallibility, of limit, of mutual indebtedness for our nurture and psychological growth, of the inaccessibility of our souls to one another and of the gratuitous and creative nature of what we say t "[Dostoevsky] wants us to choose that humanity will survive - not merely as a biological but a cultural reality. And the culture he identifies as human is one in which we do not have to lie about what we are in relationship to our environment; a culture that insists upon a recognition of mortality and fallibility, of limit, of mutual indebtedness for our nurture and psychological growth, of the inaccessibility of our souls to one another and of the gratuitous and creative nature of what we say to one another. His fictions tell us, with intensifying urgency, that this culture is more at risk than we might have thought, that the restless concerns of secular and instrumentalist thinking are fast eroding it, so that we may wake up and discover we no longer know how to respond with either respect or compassion to each other, and so have literally nothing to say" This is a dense book and a parts of it went way over my head, but really does a fantastic job of getting to the core of why Dostoevsky's ideas will always be relevant.

  11. 5 out of 5

    C.N.

    Difficult read. But excellent, excellent read. What great commentary. Excellent commentary about what it is to be human and what makes us less than human. Great stuff. Reminds us of the greatness of God and what it means to follow Christ versus the destruction of our own madness and self-will.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jennie

    I suppose properly this should go in a category called "Lit-Crit," but I don't plan on reading too much literary criticism any time soon. Theoretically, it might also fit in Russian lit, but the author's not Russian himself. So Religion it is. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this book. I've read nearly all the Dostoevsky books the author refers to in this work at some point or another, but my memory of most of them isn't very clear, and I read a few before I was mature enough to fully compr I suppose properly this should go in a category called "Lit-Crit," but I don't plan on reading too much literary criticism any time soon. Theoretically, it might also fit in Russian lit, but the author's not Russian himself. So Religion it is. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this book. I've read nearly all the Dostoevsky books the author refers to in this work at some point or another, but my memory of most of them isn't very clear, and I read a few before I was mature enough to fully comprehend what was going on. And I'm not familiar AT ALL with any other literary criticism about these books, outside of the little bit we read about The Underground Man in my history class on the Russian intelligentsia. So I really can't say this is good or bad or insightful or not insightful. I have little to no frame of reference in which to situate it. (I bought it on super-discount on the last day of the APA conference this year.) It seems like the author is a well-researched, thoughtful, eloquent individual (I would hope the Archbishop of Canterbury would be). It seems like he has carefully examined both the original novels by Dostoevsky and much of the literary criticism surrounding them, and that he has Thought Big Thoughts about everything he has taken in. At times, I was like "Gee, that makes a lot of sense!" At others times my mind wandered to other topics, even as my eyes moved over the words. And at still other times, no matter how many times I read a passage, I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Overall, as a casual reader, I would give it maybe a 3.5. But I have no clue how experts in the field have received this book, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jake

    Williams does an excellent job diving into Dostoevsky's rich literature to explore the interplay between Faith and Fiction, and the role of the language we choose in either. Central to the book is the idea that freedom is necessary for a dialogue, not just between the characters, or the story and the narrator, but between the author and the audience. Williams does not limit his reading to the staples of "Crime and Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov" but explores "Devils", "Notes from Undergr Williams does an excellent job diving into Dostoevsky's rich literature to explore the interplay between Faith and Fiction, and the role of the language we choose in either. Central to the book is the idea that freedom is necessary for a dialogue, not just between the characters, or the story and the narrator, but between the author and the audience. Williams does not limit his reading to the staples of "Crime and Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov" but explores "Devils", "Notes from Underground", and even draws extensively from "The Idiot". Having read the first three I was able to thoroughly understand and enjoy the work, but sections devoted to the latter two works were difficult to maneuver.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Toby

    Dostoevsky isn't the easiest novelist to understand. Rowan Williams certainly isn't the easiest theologian to understand. The combination of the two is daunting to say the least. Williams' study (it isn't a biography) of the great Russian author is certainly no page-turner, but it charts very deep waters as we are taken into the nature of language, forgiveness and identity. It probably needs to be read more than once (for those who have the time!) Dostoevsky isn't the easiest novelist to understand. Rowan Williams certainly isn't the easiest theologian to understand. The combination of the two is daunting to say the least. Williams' study (it isn't a biography) of the great Russian author is certainly no page-turner, but it charts very deep waters as we are taken into the nature of language, forgiveness and identity. It probably needs to be read more than once (for those who have the time!)

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mauberley

    Rowan Wiliiams is always worth reading and his engagement with Doestoevsky offers enlightenment for readers of the great Russian. But Williams being Williams, there is much more besides - insight into faith, redemption, iconography, forgiveness, the Christian's crucial relationship with 'the other', and Eastern Orthodox theology. This is not casual reading but Rowan's masterly style and clarity of expression opens his thought to anyone who extends an effort to read the book. Rowan Wiliiams is always worth reading and his engagement with Doestoevsky offers enlightenment for readers of the great Russian. But Williams being Williams, there is much more besides - insight into faith, redemption, iconography, forgiveness, the Christian's crucial relationship with 'the other', and Eastern Orthodox theology. This is not casual reading but Rowan's masterly style and clarity of expression opens his thought to anyone who extends an effort to read the book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Adam Shaeffer

    Insightful, deep, theologically rooted analysis of what makes Dostoevsky's fiction powerful and resonant across decades and cultures. Profound and well worth reading. Insightful, deep, theologically rooted analysis of what makes Dostoevsky's fiction powerful and resonant across decades and cultures. Profound and well worth reading.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lowell AfdahlRice

    Scholarly treatment of primarily Brothers Karamozov, The Devils, and Crime and Punishment. Very detailed. Did not engage me like the works that were analyzed.

  18. 5 out of 5

    David

    Hard to pin down, but there's something very wonderful about this book. For a more accessible read, see William's latest, ' The Lion's World.' Hard to pin down, but there's something very wonderful about this book. For a more accessible read, see William's latest, ' The Lion's World.'

  19. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Livermore

    Masterful and perceptive study of Dostoevsky. Especially good of course on the theological connections.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jordan Goings

    Williams has the gift of making all things approachable! A very smooth and informative read... however, certain sections could've offered a bit more. Williams has the gift of making all things approachable! A very smooth and informative read... however, certain sections could've offered a bit more.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jr. Canada

  22. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Faria

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ghazwan Butrous

  24. 5 out of 5

    FranCat

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ethan Campbell

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jon

  27. 5 out of 5

    Greg Spencer

  28. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Boyle

  29. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  30. 5 out of 5

    Els Claessens

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