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Vita Brevis: Floria Aemilia's Letter to Aurel Augustine Paperback – Illustrated, 5 Oct 2000
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A playful and inventive work from the bestselling author of SOPHIE'S WORLD.
About the Author
Jostein Gaarder is the author of SOPHIE'S WORLD, a huge bestseller in over 40 countries. He was born in Oslo in 1952 and lives there now with his wife and two sons.
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Gaarder has done a wonderful 'show not tell' job on Augustine's rejection of eros and the feminine - which has sadly played out to such miserable effect in the lives of women (and men) over subsequent centuries. This book achieved its end in getting you to actually stop and think, in a 'real world' way about the philosophy and theology of Augustine - as something that has had consequences, rather than dusty old, dry and meaningless theology.
The impact of Augustine lives on with us today as we still battle with the notion of the sacred feminine. Bravo Gaarder for highlighting it in such a skilful way. And one is left with the distinct impression that a Church influenced by a Floria instead of her faithless lover, would have been a delight indeed and a far more fitting caretaker for the human soul.
Whichever of these scenarios applies, the 'author' is the first, and long-term, mistress of Bishop Aurelius Augustinus of Hippo Regius, later 'Saint' Augustine. The woman is here named as Floria Aemilia (Augustine himself in his 'Confessions' never named her). She was also the mother of Augustine's only known child, Adeodatus. In 'Vita Brevis', she writes to Augustine many years after their parting, about the history of their relationship and its cruel end. She also gives a detailed response to Augustine's 'Confessions'.
The lack of context-setting and 'period detail' in the letter irritated me. I wanted to know about Floria's family and place in the social structure, about how she became literate and able to address Augustine as an equal, and more about how she lived, both before and after her years with Augustine. She is often spoken of as his concubine - was she in fact a prostitute? But the fact that these topics are not addressed in the text is convincing in a way; the real or imagined Floria writes to Augustine - she is not writing for future generations of historians.
As an account of a relationship, 'Vita Brevis' has the ring of authenticity. If it is fiction, it is an imaginative triumph. We hear the voice of someone who has largely passed beyond bitterness in circumstances where there were many reasons to be bitter. One episode recounted is genuinely shocking - nowhere represented in the 'Confessions' - and yet seems unnervingly plausible. If the Buenos Aires document story is indeed made up and no 'Codex Floria exists, then I hand it to Jostein Gaarder for his knowledge of the worst of male behaviour when an emotional rejection of a woman is in train.
Two other aspects are worth mentioning: the depiction of Augustine's overbearing mother Monica, and the footnotes, which add to the impression that Gaarder is merely editing a text which he did not write himself. Overall, I found this an absorbing read, and I do now feel very differently about the powerful and charismatic Augustine himself - I feel more negatively, I'm afraid.
I enjoyed the philosophical references as always in so many if not all Gaarder' s books; but not one of my favourites as it is not a story, but a long and repetitive letter.
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