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Where Rowan Williams meets Dostoevsky - The Telegraph

Saturday 27th September 2008

In an article published in The Telegraph, the Archbishop talks to A.N.Wilson about his book Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction

by A. N. Wilson.

Rowan Williams divides us, even those who are not church hobbyists with an obsession (pro or anti) with gay bishops.

Some, such as myself, rejoice that at the heart of public life, we at last have a person who reads books, who takes the life of the mind seriously, while being so patently a good egg. Others are less sure. Even his fans agree that his utterances can be impenetrably obscure. This must be a drawback in a public figure.

The anti-Rowanites include, paradoxically, both atheist intellectuals, who dislike so clever a man for appearing to side with the most conservative Christians, and those Christians themselves, who suspect that behind the complex rhetoric there lurks a crypto-unbeliever.

"He's someone who's chaotic, sometimes pretentious, sometimes waffly, sometimes unbearably clotted, and yet in the middle of it, there are so many gems."

Who is speaking? Why, it is Rowan Williams himself, speaking of his near-namesake, but no relation, Charles Williams - an obscure taste nowadays, but a strong one.

Charles Williams worked as a publisher all his life. When Auden, still an agnostic, met him, to discuss the Oxford Book of Light Verse, he felt himself in the presence of something like holiness, and began his journey back to faith. Charles Williams wrote long Arthurian poems, and a series of supernatural thrillers, including one which culminates in a Eucharist celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"Ah! The great Mass in Lambeth Palace!" exclaims the Archbishop, clapping his hands in delight, and smiling beneath the huge bushy eyebrows. He does not on this occasion speak - though he has written about them - of Charles Williams's peculiar mingling of piety and concupiscence, and Dantean crushes - sometimes out of control - on office secretaries at the Oxford University Press.

Like the subject of the Archbishop's latest book, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Williams was not an entirely savoury character. Were the Archbishop to present either Williams (chainsmoking lover of women and member of the Order of the Golden Dawn) or Dostoevsky (gambler, political prisoner, anti-Semite) to colleagues on the General Synod, there would probably be some prim intakes of breath.

I thought of these things, as I was led into the presence of the bardic Archbishop at Lambeth, and remembered the spluttered outburst of disapproval that I heard last year from a senior layman.

"He's supposed to be the Archbishop of Canterbury! The Church of England is collapsing around his ears! And where is he? In America for two months! Writing a book about Dostoevsky!" The speaker's tone suggested that it was bad enough for the Archbishop to be taking any time off, but to be writing about a novelist who did not even have the decency to be English - well, that really took the biscuit.

Yet the Church of England has not collapsed - not quite, anyway. And the result of the Archbishop's sabbatical in the United States is a splendid book on the wild, strange genius of Dostoevsky.

I was very glad to hear that he is quite unrepentant about having taken time off to write about the great Russian.

Rowan Williams says: "I think it is important that anyone in this sort of position does not become reactive, so your thoughts aren't determined by what's just come off the computer. And to keep that alive you need some sort of space.

"And I think it is some part of this job to try and keep stirring the cultural pot, even in a very limited way, and to say: when we are having all these debates about faith and atheism and science and so on, don't let's forget what lives of faith actually look like imaginatively, in ways that really serious writers and artists portray them, because if your view of religion is confined to a few fundamentalist platitudes, there's no debate there. Yes, just to remind people that some imaginatively serious non-trivial, non-Pollyannaish writers have lived with this. Yes, it's worth doing."

As a youth he had a prodigious linguistic facility.

"You had English, Latin, French - any Welsh? Did your parents speak Welsh at home?"

"They didn't speak it much to me. I think people didn't much in the Fifties. If you wanted to get on, you didn't really learn Welsh, but I learnt a bit in the family, and more at secondary school."

"And when you went to Cambridge you also had Greek?"

"Hardly any Greek at that point. I had to learn Greek and Hebrew from scratch."

"And as you studied the New Testament, you had to learn German to read all the great biblical scholars?" He shrugs.

"It's pretty good, your German."

"It's not as good as it was."

"But you preached in Berlin at the Bonhoeffer Centenary celebrations?"

"I did, yes. I was delighted when they said that I didn't sound at all like an Englishman speaking German. They went on hastily to say it didn't sound like a German either."

"And then on top of that, you learnt Russian."

"Well, everyone said that if you want to understand Russian Christianity [about which he wrote his PhD thesis] you've got to read The Brothers Karamazov."

This gruesome, hectic tale is a strange work to be contemplating in the club-like atmosphere of Lambeth Palace. It feels very far from the bloody murders, crazed outbursts, scenes of appalling drunkenness and sexual depravity that are Dostoevsky's habitual subjects.

There is also, nagging at the heart of all Dostoevsky's work, the other side of the religious argument. One of the Karamazov brothers notoriously says that he wants to hand his entry ticket back to God, because of the suffering of children. The novels, as well as depicting bearded holy men, contain powerful arguments for atheism.

"And," adds Williams enthusiastically, "one of the surprises of The Brothers Karamazov is that Alyosha the monastic novice turns out not to be quite the central figure he thought he was going to be, and his rather disreputable elder brother Mitya turns out to be the one who rather mysteriously gets the point and offers to go to jail for a crime he did not commit."

I wonder if this clever and allusive professor empathises with those characters in Dostoevsky who do not believe in God? Or with those nearer home in modern Britain who might find faith difficult or impossible? There must have been times - during his student days - when he did not believe?

He astonishes me by replying: "I've never known what it is not to believe, though I have known periods of my undergraduate life when I had very little idea what it was that I was believing. It is the believing in God that's difficult. It's whether God is trustworthy. It's something inside the darkness."

He speaks contemptuously, however, of those who want, in his phrase "to fiddle about with the details" and to question, say, the truth of the Resurrection story.

I had supposed (hoped?) that he would have more sympathy with the position of half-believers. But he screwed up his face dismissively.

"Many apparently responsible and serious Christians apparently do not believe in the Empty Tomb. I can't quite see how they do it."

The Russian tradition, with its grand Either-Or, with its choice between the extreme holiness of Father Zossima or the absolute unbelief of Ivan Karamazov, seems to appeal much more.

One of Rowan Williams's poems is about Saint Serafim of Sarov, a peasant who spent three years as a solitary, and whole nights in prayer on a bare outcrop of rock. The local landlord reported that when he went to him for spiritual counsel, Serafim's face shone.

"He's been a focal figure for me. He really is," he says.

Beside this love of the Russian mystics and the holy people, there is an engagement with contemporary literature which it is hard to find in any other public figure, secular or religious, today. He speaks knowledgeably and appreciatively of AS Byatt's novels, about Geoffrey Hill. He hugely admires Philip Pullman.

"He is someone who is really worth arguing with. He's not irreligious... You end up with someone who is hugely preoccupied with transcendence." For those with less exalted reading tastes, however, it might be comforting to know that another favourite is more accessible.

"Certainly there are periods when engaging with Dostoevsky or AS Byatt is not quite what you want to do after a long day of committees."

Then it is that he and his son Pip turn to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

I ask whether part of the appeal of Holmes is the myth that mere intelligence can solve life's problems.

"It is a very consoling myth," he says.

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction is published by Continuum at £16.99

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