Vita Brevis, Jostein Gaarder (Phoenix House)
In which Jostein Gaarder tries to avoid typecasting, with rather mixed results. After the huge success of Sophie’s World, in which Gaarder aimed to make philosophy accessible to children, and its successors, The Solitaire Mystery and The Christmas Mystery, Gaarder’s latest is a more adult affair, in which the former concubine of St. Augustine (Floria Aemilia) writes to the now Bishop of Hippo to remind him of his former, saucier self and offer a critique of his classic work, The Confessions.
Unfortunately, Gaarder doesn’t quite pull off the conceit. Floria’s critique, despite the erudite references, is a one-note affair, imploring the ascetic Augustine to realise the aesthetic in human nature. There is some interesting food for thought, but not enough to sustain a whole book.
Secondly, Gaarder can’t resist a mystery, and in this case we are asked to decide for ourselves whether the manuscript is genuine or not. Gaarder gives over half the pages to blank space and the odd scholarly footnote to add a flavour of authenticity to the puzzle, but it’s more a tease than a test. In this respect Gaarder seems to have forgotten this is a book for adults.
Last of all, the book proper (Floria’s letter) fills barely 70 pages, and the quality of material on offer is not so great as to make that anything like good enough value. The publishers have launched a couple of series of £2 books and you can’t help feeling this would be better off among them.
This is nonetheless an interesting little curio which is well worth borrowing for an afternoon, but you’d have to be a real Gaarderphile to consider it worth a tenner of your hard earned cash.