Saturday, 13 September 2008

Dostoevsky: How to Read Rowan

Day off, and a chance to open Rowan Williams’ book on Dostoevsky, which arrived yesterday. I’m wondering how to eat this particular elephant. It doesn’t look like an in-flight job. Russian novels can be a tad complicated anyway:

And then, of course, Dostoevsky is stuffed with added complex metaphysics:

Think about it. Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky could take longer to read than it did to write. Well, I hope I don’t have to read the entire works of Dostoevsky to pass go, but it’s been a few years, so I've loaded up the eBook Reader with some (free) prime juicy Dostoevsky. Then it’s down to my patent method for reading Rowan's more “clotted” stuff:
  • He’s really a poet, therefore it's densely packed with images. Often the images, in themselves are simple but surprising. That’s half the fun. Like all forms of poetry you have to unpack it yourself. If you only ever do bleeding obvious level sudokus, I can reliably suggest Rowan is not the writer for you. But if you like a good puzzle and learning by discovery, it’s magical stuff. Ideas are often approached by the side entrance, not the front door. It’s usually better to take things a chapter at a time, slow down, switch off the speedreading circuits, and relax. Like a poem, go with the flow and see where it leads. Don’t analyse, or you lose the flow! Read the whole paragraph, then stop and think it through.
  • The writing often works on more than one level simultaneously. The secret is to latch onto the level that’s caught your attention, follow it through consistently, then review the chapter. If you pick up another angle follow that through in its own terms. If you accidentally mix ’n match the levels, it gets like controlling SuperMario on several levels at once, and you go nuts by the end of the chapter. You are allowed to read the book more than once.
  • It rarely works to try and read the book at one sitting. Pacing chapters between, say, one morning a month sessions works a treat. I did once read a Rowan book on why history matters on a plane in under 3 hours; but historiography is my thing, and that was a one off achievement I don’t ever expect to emulate again.
Similar things could be said, perhaps, of Dostoevsky. So this is either gong to be a resonant match of deep speaking to deep, or a clotted expressionists Godzilla-meets-the-beast experience. I’ll let you know in, er, about two years time?


Bob MacDonald said...

If you blog it as you go, maybe we will all leave our theology and biblical studies volumes on their various tables and take up Dostoevsky ourselves.

I am glad I am still picking up the odd post from the Lambeth Bishops blog. It is taking a while for me to get blogging going in our congregation here.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Hmm... It's very chewy stuff, Bob. I've managed the intro and a Dostoevsky chapter from Brothers Karamazov. I might try and blog progress, but fear it will be slow!

I canm't even guarantee I'll be through by the time you get to the end of the Hebrew alphabet with Sunday School — I'm keeping an eye on it, though as a really interesting piece of work you're doing with a Church. Good luck!

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for the encouragement. So far Sunday School has been fun I think for us all - but how far we go is yet to be determined.

No pressure on blogging Rowan - it is very chewy stuff indeed. It is the second prod for me to read some more Dostoevsky. The last of his that I read was The Idiot, a 56th birthday present several years ago - it was quite an intro to Hans Holbein the Younger.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I was encouraged by your having a go anyway with the Hebrew. They do courses for people who emigrate to Israel, and they manage to acquire a working knowledge in six weeks, I believe. I think it opens up a lot of good stuff if people are serious about wanting to get to know the Bble as it is. Fundamentalism sometimes combines intense enthusiasm for an idea of the Bible with a reduced sounbite acquaintance with the text itself.

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