Vita Brevis – Jostein Gaarder

 ” Vita Brevis is both a classic love story, beautifully told, and a fascinating insight into St Augustine’s life and that of his concubine. It is up to the reader to determine its authenticity”

I find Jostein Gaarder’s books a bit hit and miss, in fact the score is now 4-3 in favour of the ‘hits’ thanks to this book.

Whilst having a potter around a bookshop in Buenos Aires, the author comes across a letter written to St Augustine (author of The Confessions, bishop of Hippo in the fourth century and all round pious chap) from his ex lover Floria Aemiliathe.

Naturally he (Gaarder) buys the letter and wants to get it verified, so sends it off to the Vatican, where it is never heard of again, and all he is left with is a photocopy of the original. The question being how much of the letter you are about to read is true, or is it just an intellectual excerise by the author?

I haven’t got around to purchasing and reading a copy of The Confessions yet but it doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable as Floria quotes extensively from said book and gives us a mini biography of their relationship, his treatment of her, as well arguing with his views on religion.

Floria herself is very intellectual, quoting from various Greek myths and philosophies as well as Roman orators. Although the letter is written from her personal viewpoint, it has a wider aim of asking questions of the way the Catholic church doctrine works and how the church viewed and treated women, especially intelligent women.

The whole book is a fascinating look into the church of the time, St Augustine is referenced as having been influenced by Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism, so the theological arguments have a further layer of being grounded in heretical beliefs so the cross over is interesting.

That last paragraph may have given you the impression this is a dry slog of a book, but with Gaarder’s talent for putting across complex arguments and the contextualisation within which they are set into a simple form, it makes it accessible to everyone, sort of like an Umberto Eco lite.

Interpretation is the key to this book, whether it is the meaning of Christian doctrine from the Bible, or working out the tone within which Floria writes the letter (which could be one of a few ways). If anyone has read this book or does in future, i’d be really very interested to know how you read Floria, as it were.

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