In 2012, Sarah Ruden brought us, in a crackling translation, the second-century-AD Latin novel known as The Golden Ass of Apuleius. The Golden Ass is full of impudent incongruities. A topsy-turvy tale about a hapless young man turned into a donkey is combined with a love story (of Cupid and Psyche) as bright and delightful as the tapestries that would illustrate it throughout the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Utterly unexpectedly, the book ends with the vision of a goddess rising from the swell of a moonlit sea.1
Ruden now leads us to a yet more incongruous masterpiece. A little over two centuries after The Golden Ass, we discover a person who appears to be a highly Latinate North African such as Apuleius had been—a product, indeed, of a school established in Apuleius’s own hometown, Madauros (modern M’Daourouch, in Algeria, near the tense border with Tunisia)—only to learn that he was a middle-aged Christian bishop, with his back turned to us, speaking endlessly, urgently to his God.
We call this riveting dialogue with God the Confessions of Saint Augustine. It was probably written in 397 AD, a few years after Augustine had become a Christian bishop in Hippo (modern Annaba, in Algeria: one of the few good ports available west of Carthage, sheltered by a row of promontories that protrude into the Mediterranean like a fleet straining at anchor to take sail for Rome).
The Confessions is as much a jumble of contrasts as is Apuleius’s dirty, courtly, and ecstatic tale. We try to anchor it by calling it the first Christian autobiography—even, in more heady moods, the first autobiography ever. But to call it an autobiography is a misleading half-truth. In the first nine books of the Confessions, Augustine does indeed describe his life from his birth in 354 to his conversion in Milan in 386, and the death of his mother, Monnica, at Ostia, in late 387. Only these books, accounting for slightly more than half of the text, deal with Augustine’s past life. After that—for a further 206 pages in Ruden’s translation—the great work floats triumphantly out to sea, ever further away from modern expectations of an autobiography.
In books ten and eleven, we are treated to minute self-examination and to spells of philosophical heavy lifting on the nature of memory and time. In the last two books, Augustine plunges into the shadowy, magical forest of the Hebrew Scriptures to meditate on what Moses had really meant when he described the six days of Creation.
So what is the correct reaction when we open the Confessions? It should, perhaps, be one of acute embarrassment. For we have stumbled upon a human being at a primal moment—standing in prayer before God. Having intruded on Augustine at his…
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