Books: The Bishop is a slipper hero

VITA BREVIS: A Letter to St Augustine by Jostein Gaarder, Phoenix House pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
"I went to Carthage where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust." So begins the third book of the Confessions of St Augustine, with an opening sentence as memorable as any. As an 18-year-old student Augustine plunged vigorously into "rank depravity"; at last however he fell in love with an unnamed young woman of limited means. For 12 years they and their son lived together, in Africa and in Italy, until Augustine, now professor of rhetoric in Milan, conceived an ambitious marriage and renounced his mistress. He claimed that his choice was forced upon him and it was "a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding for I loved her dearly".

She returned to Africa, leaving her son behind. Augustine, frustrated by the prospect of a two-year wait before his wedding, took another mistress. In the event he never married: after so many years of agonising over the nature of God, faith and doubt, original sin, worldliness and the senses, he underwent conversion and was baptised. He returned to Africa, became Bishop of Hippo and devoted his long life to pastoral duties, writing his extraordinary books and fiercely campaigning against heresy and enemies of the Church. In 430 he died, in the midst of the Vandals' siege of Hippo, 20 years after Rome had fallen to Alaric.

Jostein Gaarder offers us this Vita Brevis in a cheerful, take-it-or- leave-it spirit. He purports to have found a bundle of papers in a secondhand bookshop in Buenos Aires and to have recognised them as the possible transcript of a letter to St Augustine from his discarded mistress, here called Floria Aemilia. He claims that he took the documents to the Vatican, who later denied all knowledge of them. "I had naturally taken care to make a photocopy of the MS," but, less naturally, "it was incredibly naive of me not to ask the Vatican Library for a receipt at least!" I think the exclamation mark gives the avuncular game away. But what's in a game, from the author of Sophie's World?

The epistle is arranged in 10 sections, roughly corresponding to the first 10 books of the Confessions; which Floria has been reading. She reproaches Augustine, violently at times, for rejecting her in favour of his own salvation. She questions his precepts, especially the redemptive power of abstinence, and defends the pleasures of the senses, pleasures given by God, who may or may not exist. She will not be baptised so long as she sees theology triumph over earthly love, repressing the physical joys of the world, tarnishing the infant with original sin.

So far, so good. Initially one feels for her and her cruel dismissal, and the absolute loss of her son who died when he was 15. But Floria makes the same points over and again and she is too fond of citing Horace, who as a self-confessed "sleek pig from an Epicurean sty" makes an inappropriate ally. Gradually she alienates the reader by her patronising tone and her arch, cutesy turns of phrase. Up flashes the exclamation mark again, casting a creepy negative glow. "So many heads, Aurel, so many opinions!" "Poor Aurel! How ashamed you are of being a man, you who were my little stallion." And, most gruesomely: "Do you think some parts of the human body are less worthy of God than others? For instance, is your middle finger more neutral than your tongue? You did use your finger too!" You begin to feel that he was well out of it.

Augustine was deeply moved by the fourth book of the Aeneid, which tells the tragic story of Aeneas's entanglement with Dido, Queen of Carthage. Floria makes much of herself as a latter-day Dido, and there are parallels. They both spent time in Carthage, fell in love with men who were in search of a higher destiny and were abandoned. But there the resemblance ends. Dido is a tragic heroine of raw, desperate truthfulness. Floria is smug and self-regarding; her undoubted suffering does not impinge. Bad luck, have another fig.

Still, this short book is lively, readable and prettily produced, with an abundance of very explanatory footnotes which occasionally run into prime lunacy. This is my favourite:

"The expression 'hen-pecked' (toffelhelt: 'slipper hero' in Norwegian) existed as far back as late antiquity. However, I have been unable to find any occurrence of the word either in dictionaries or in any text from late antiquity. Here Floria uses the word 'crepundia' which should probably be translated as 'rattle' (a child's toy) or 'bangles' or 'baubles', from 'crepo', rattle, jangle or clatter. But cf also 'crepida', a Green sandal, a derivative of the same verb! Directly translated then, Floria describes Aurel as Abstinence's 'bauble'. I have chosen a freer translation, the Norwegian 'slipper hero', for Floria's 'crepundia'. [I have rendered the Norwegian as English 'hen-pecked'. Translator]."

I think you will agree that this passage contains an especially twinkly exclamation mark.

Conceivably, Vita Brevis might direct a few readers towards St Augustine's Confessions, if not, alas, to Gaarder's objective, "a renewal of interest in the Latin language and in classical culture as a whole". It remains a pleasant jeu d'esprit, even if Floria isn't up to the game.