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review 2017-02-01 11:00
Saint Augustine and His Abandoned Concubine: Vita Brevis by Jostein Gaarder
Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder
Das Leben ist kurz = Vita brevis - Jostein Gaarder

During much of European history men shaped the world of things and thought as they believed right and passed over women in silence, if they didn’t hold them in contempt. Highly revered Fathers of the Christian Church like Saint Augustine of Hippo Regius further institutionalised this contempt of women… and of earthly pleasures altogether as shows his autobiography titled Confessiones. In this theological key text he admits that before his conversion to Christianity in 385 he was a man who tasted life to the full. For over ten years he lived with a concubine (probably law forbade a formal marriage) and had a son with her, but in retrospect he regrets this sinful and immoral relationship because it kept him from true love of God. In Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine (also translated into English as The Same Flower) the Norwegian writer, philosopher and theologian Jostein Gaarder gave this abandoned woman a voice.

 

In 1995 in a second-hand bookshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jostein Gaarder comes across an old manuscript in a red box titled Codex Floriae. Its first sentence shows that it’s the letter of a certain Floria Aemilia to Augustinus Aurelius, the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa (today: Algeria) who was later to become Saint Augustine. When he translates another sentence, it occurs to him that Floria Aemilia might be the saint’s long-time concubine whom he mentioned in his Confessiones without ever revealing her name. Of course, the author doesn’t know if the seventeenth-century copy is of an authentic letter, but it intrigues him that it might be and he buys it. Back home he makes a copy of the entire letter and sends the original to the Vatican Library for inspection. The Codex Floriae gets lost and the author decides to translate the Latin text from his copy and to publish it as Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine. So far in brief what Jostein Gaarder says in his introduction about the actual letter of Floria Aemilia that makes up the major part of the book.

 

As it soon turns out, the author was right to assume that Floria Aemilia is the concubine of Saint Augustine. The exceptionally intelligent and self-assured woman from Carthage read the Confessiones of her former lover and obviously felt the urgent need to comment on them, notably on the passages dealing with their life together in Northern Africa, Rome and eventually Milan and with the emotional bonds between them that he tries to reduce to sexual desire. But she doesn’t only give her point of view of events (sometimes drifting into bitterness or mockery seeing how religious frenzy distorted his memories and opinions). Thanks to thorough studies of philosophy, theology as well as rhetoric during the years since Augustine sent her back to Carthage, she is able to challenge his notions of (original) sin and morality with great dialectical skill. Above all, she can’t agree with his attitude towards women who are for him the seducers leading men astray from the way to God and Eternal Life. Augustine postulates that all pleasures on Earth are sinful and should be avoided in preparation of life after death, while Floria Aemilia is convinced that pleasures are God-given and that denying them means to deny God’s creation. She supports her arguments with many quotations from classical Greek and Roman sources that Jostein Gaarder points out and explains in footnotes if necessary for understanding.

 

All things considered, Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine isn’t so much a book about Floria Aemilia than it’s about Saint Augustine, his biographical background and above all his philosophy that helped to marginalise women not only in the Christian Church, but in Christian society altogether for more than one and a half millennium. Alone for the critical examination of the Confessiones from a female point of view, it’s a worthwhile read. In addition, it’s well written and easy to follow despite the complex philosophical argument.

 

Many have wondered, if the Codex Floriae really exists or if the “feminist manifesto” of Floria Aemilia is an invention of Jostein Gaarder. As it seems, the author always refused to clearly answer the question. I think that the book is a gorgeous work of fiction.

 

Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder 

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review 2016-05-14 11:00
The Unhappy Liar by Habit: Before You Sleep by Linn Ullmann
Before You Sleep - Linn Ullmann
Die Lügnerin: Roman - Linn Ullmann

Before You Sleep is a contemporary Scandinavian novel from Norway, more precisely a debut novel written by the daughter of actress Liv Ullmann and film director Ingmar Bergman. Can it be much of a surprise that it was an immediate success when it first came out in 1998?

 

The story centres on three generations of the Norwegian Blom family. Most of them have always lived in Norway, but one followed his heart and immigrated to the USA in the 1930s. He got married, had two daughters, managed to keep afloat during the years of the depression... and died unexpectedly just when things were getting better. His family returned to Norway and all that seems to be left of this episode of family history is a faded photo and a couple of stories. But the narrator realises that the experiences of her ancestors, notably of her mother, shaped her character too, especially her inclination to tell lies to protect herself from pain. This quest of her family and of herself gives a meditative story with a faintly surrealistic touch here and there.

 

I enjoyed reading the novel very much and hope that I did it justice with my long review. Click here to read it on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany.

Source: edith-lagraziana.blogspot.com
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review 2015-09-18 12:31
The Tragedy of the Selfish Life
Peer Gynt - Henrik Ibsen,William Archer,Charles Archer

It was interesting that as I was finishing this play it just happened that a Norweigan was sitting opposite me on the train and made a comment about how he didn't think that anybody actually read Ibsen outside of Norway, though he also mentioned that Ibsen is among the four greatest playwrights of Norway (and considering I don't know who the other three are, and that I have heard of Isben, and Peer Gynt, since I read the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole). Obviously to the Norweigans there are probably playwrights that are more popular than Ibsen, but outside of Norway I would have to say that he is the most well known (if not only) playwright. As for Peer Gynt, it is probably his most well known play, even if most people actually don't know what it is about.

 

 

Well, the question then arises as to what it is about? Well, it is about a selfish man that lives a selfish life, and ends up dying, not so much alone, but in the arms of a woman that had been waiting for him all of her life, but was never able to live with, or love him. In a way there is a lot of Peer Gynt in many (if not all) of us, and I must say that I suspect there is some Peer Gynt in me as well. The reason that I say this is because Peer Gynt is about selfishness and about how our selfishness ends up blinding ourselves to the world around us. In fact, our desire for ourselves and for our own self satisfaction cuts us off from what the world really can offer us and the enjoyment that we can really experience.

 

 

Now, simply because I have read Peer Gynt does not mean that I am going to run back to Adelaide. I don't think that is what I have got out of this play, but what I have realised, as I look back on my life, is how I have missed out on a lot of things (as Peer Gynt did) because I pursued my own selfish desires and got caught up on what I wanted, and cried about what I didn't have, rather than actually taking hold of the joy of what I do have. I am not the only person who has been through this, many of us have, but the difference is that many of us do not look back on our past to really see the mistakes that we have made, and the selfish decisions that have cut us off from really enjoying life. For instance, I bemoaned the fact that I would never have the money to shop in the really fashionable district in Naples yet was blind to the fact that I was actually in Naples. Would it not have been better to have enjoyed the fact that I was in Naples rather than crying about what I do not have. Similarly, I bemoan the fact that I will probably never be able to own a BMW or a Mercedes, yet ignore the fact that in reality I probably don't actually want a BMW or a Mercedes. Okay, I many not be able to afford a 2012 Porshce Boxster, but I bet (and I have done this) if I look on www.carsales.com I could find a 1978 Porsche 944 that is actually in a reasonable condition.

 

The imagery of the troll plays prominently in Peer Gynt, and it is suggested that the troll is reflective of our bestial nature. Peer Gynt, in many cases, is a beast, and he succumbs to his bestial side. His dream is to rule the world, and to lead an army of five thousand men, and in a way he reaches that dream, but that dream, in the end, only exists within his imagination in a mental asylum. Certainly he is worshipped as an emperor, but he is only the emperor in his own mind. In fact, there are numerous scenes where Gynt exists only on his own, and while he does not really bemoan anything, he is caught up in that essence of self without actually seeing the world around him.

 

There are some interesting scenes, such as when he takes the bride and flees into the mountains, only to let go of her and send her back. Certainly, he wants the bride, but when he has her he realises that he does not want her, despite the fact that she wants him. Once again, Peer Gynt only sees his own world and his own desires and is oblivious to the world around him. Similarly it is with the woman who loves him, but while at first he does want her, he decides that he is not worthy for her (for he says that he smells of troll – a realisation that he has succumbed to his bestial nature, his desire for self-fulfilment as opposed to a holistic social fulfilment) and flees. Maybe it is that the bestial nature is what holds him back from truly being able to fulfil his own life.

 

The Norweigan on the train said that Ibsen was critical of society, but I do not think it is society that he is being critical of in this play. As I have said, our society is not actually a society at all, but a fractured collection on individuals who move amongst each other with a desire to better there own fortunes and their own nests. Marriages today have pretty much become a sham, which is probably why gay marriage is such a hot topic. Many Christians campaign against gay marriage because they believe that it will destroy the institution of marriage when in reality the institution of marriage has already been destroyed. It is no longer the biblical concept of two becoming one, but rather two partnering together to use each other to fulfil their own desires, and once those desires have been fulfilled, or are no longer being fulfilled, then the partnership breaks apart. In the end, we no not exist as a community, but rather we exist as a collection of individuals who each live in our own individual reality and fail to see the true reality that exists around us.

 

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/656680984
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review 2015-03-15 13:06
A lost love returns
The Lady from the Sea - Henrik Ibsen

Okay, I have mentioned before that reading a play can be somewhat more difficult that watching it performed; one of the reasons being that sometimes it is difficult to differentiate the characters. However, after being forced to put this play down after reading the first act because I had to go to work (and unfortunately I don't work in a job where I can put my feet up on a desk and read a book while video cameras monitor the outside of a warehouse making sure that nobody is trying to break it – I did have a friend who had a job like that, and that is basically what he did all night), I suddenly discovered another problem with plays – they are meant to be read in one sitting. Unfortunately they are not like novels where you can put them down and pick them up later, because it can be a lot easier to lose your place in a play than in a novel (or maybe it is just me).

Anyway, this play is about a woman who grew up in a lighthouse. She then met and fell in love with a sailor but when the sailor left to go out to sea he got into a bit of trouble (he killed his captain) and was forced to abandon ship – thus becoming lost and presumed dead. After a period of mourning the lady, Ellie, goes off and marries a doctor and moves inland. However, years later a stranger rocks up at her front door, introduces himself to her as her highschool sweetheart (for want of a better word) and asks her to elope.

One of the things that strikes me in this book is how the loves of our youth can hold on to us for years. I'm not talking about pining over somebody who is probably not all that good for you and rejecting all other advances because you want that one person, I am talking about a romance that happened years ago, back in our teenage years (or early twenties) and then, for some reason or another (maybe they moved school), the relationship comes to an end. However what Ibsen is exploring here is how these loves can linger on, and how a part of us wishes that our lost lovers will someday return and we can begin from where we finished.

I'm not so much talking about those relationships that ended because we broke up, but rather those ones that ended because of inconvenience – such as the case in this book, namely he went away, a disaster happened, and he was left for dead. In my mind I picture the highschool romance that ended because the parents found a job in another city (or even another suburb) and because of that we parted company as one of us moved away. There was no Facebook, or email, or even mobile phones, back in those days – if somebody moved, they were gone, and gone for good. Maybe, one day, we would meet again, but I think of all the people that I knew from school, and only a handful of us have reconnected over social media (usually Facebook).

 

Mermaid

 

The other interesting thing about this play is how Ibsen uses the image of the mermaid. At the beginning of the play somebody is a painting a picture of a mermaid, and at the end of the play Ellie makes a comment about how she, the mermaid, has made her decision. It is interesting how Ibsen uses this imagery as there are a couple of things I have noticed. First of all, as we are aware, the mermaid is tied to the sea, but the other interesting thing is that mermaids aren't necessarily good creatures (unlike our modern legends, thanks to Hans Christian Anderson). Some legends have mermaids luring sailors to their deaths, while others would stir up storms and tempests – in general heralding bad luck. This is not necessarily the case with this play, even though Ellie grew up in a lighthouse, which adds to the mermaid allusion as they are generally built on rocks out at sea, the traditional home of the mermaid. However, instead of being an ill omen, they are a warning to passing sailors, crying out 'beware for here lies danger'.

Anyway, while it would be good to continue on exploring the allusion, I think I will leave it at that because that would end up giving away the ending, and for some reason I really don't want to do that.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1224788867
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review 2015-02-19 11:02
A woman becomes empowered
A Doll's House - Henrik Ibsen

I had given this play a fairly ordinary review when I first commented on it, simply because when I studied it at high school I was put off by the fact that Nora simply up and left, and in a way it felt like she had undergone an inexplicable and sudden change. However, after reading [book:Peer Gynt] I decided that I should give A Doll's House another try. So, when I visited the bookstalls at Federation Square I kept an eye out for a collection of plays containing this particular one – obviously since I am now writing a second review on this play indicates that I was successful in my quest.

The one thing that I paid particular attention to as I read this play was the events leading up to Nora's decision to leave Tolmer and in a way it sort of starts to make sense. Okay, I am still not convinced that Nora made the right decision, however I can appreciate a little more of what Ibsen was getting at when he wrote this play, and we also must remember that the play was somewhat controversial at the time, namely because women simply did not up and leave their husbands for any reason. In a way, what the play is doing is showing how Nora, by leaving her husband, has become empowered because by doing so she says to Tolmer that she is capable of making her own decisions, living her own life, and making her own mistakes – she does not need Tolmer to make those decisions for her.

This, I believe, is the key to the play because back then it was believed that women were not able to make their own decisions. Women would grow up under the guardianship of their fathers until such a time as they married at which point the guardianship would pass over to the husband. Tolmer clearly believes that this is the case, especially in the way that he speaks to Nora and treats her as if she were a child that is in need of protection. He holds all of the money and makes all of the decisions – Nora is simply expected to follow along and not to ask any questions. The catch is that there was a point in their marriage when Tolmer developed a serious illness and the doctors had said that if he did not leave Norway for a time then he would likely die (it sounds as if it may have been pneumonia). However, they did not have any money. While Tolmer is a barrister he was very particular about the cases he would accept (though barristers, at least in the common law jurisdictions, aren't allowed to turn down cases due to 'moral scruples'). Obviously, having such principles meant that he wasn't any good at being a barrister, which meant that they did not have all that much money. So, to solve that problem, Nora borrows some money, forges her father's signature, and then tells Tolmer that it was a gift from her father.

During the play all of this comes to a head because the person, Krogstad, who leant the money to Nora is also an employee at a bank of which Tolmer becomes the manager. Now, Krogstad doesn't have a very good reputation (and with a name like Krogstad, I am not surprised – sorry to any Krogstad's that may be reading this) so Tolmer sacks him. Krogstad, to whom Nora is indebted, then approaches Nora and blackmails her by telling her that unless Tolmer reinstates her then he will spill the beans about the loan, and the forged signature – of which he knew about all along. So, things come to a head, Tolmer discovers the truth, flies off the handle, and basically disowns Nora, though does not go as far as kicking her out of the house because that would make a bad situation much worse. However, Krogstad repents of his actions and destroys the letter, but the damage has already been done.

It is not Tolmer that is left with a bitter taste in his mouth – he is glad that Krogstad has let it go because all that he was worried about was his reputation. No, in fact it is Nora who is left really, really upset because this little episode has shown her the type of character Tolmer really is, and she comes to the conclusion that she really wants nothing to do with him anymore, which is why she leaves. In a way it is a complete rebuke against Tolmer because it is clear that Tolmer did not care that Nora saved his life, nor did he care that Nora could go to gaol – all he cared about was his reputation and that through Nora's actions his reputation was going to be ruined.

In a way, what is happening is that Nora is not being treated as a human, but rather as a child – this is what she resents, and this is why she walks out. She wants a real marriage where she is an equal, an adult, and a human, not some child that needs to be cared for and looked after by a responsible male. In fact, Tolmer's actions when he learns about the debt clearly demonstrates how he really cares very little about Nora. While I still do not approve of Nora walking out on Tolmer, I have a much better understanding of why she did, and how Ibsen is using this play as a rebuke against the chauvinistic attitudes of his conservative society.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/437879001
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