From Publishers Weekly
O'Donnell, provost at Georgetown University and editor of the definitive edition of Augustine's Confessions, is admirably qualified to chronicle the life of the man who wrote history's most famous autobiography. But in this book, suffused with the methods (though thankfully not the tortured vocabulary) of postmodern critical suspicion, the Confessions is more hindrance than help at seeing the "many Augustines" who have been lost behind Augustine's own self-presentation. The Augustines that O'Donnell sketches include the aspiring social climber who transferred his ambitions from society to church; the bitter and dogged polemicist; and "Don Quixote of Hippo," whose "fantasy world of earliest Christianity has come eerily to be real." O'Donnell's pace is quick, his writing is sharp and there are lively and provocative interpretations on nearly every page. But his jaundiced portrait does not quite seem to do justice to the African bishop's perennial appeal, which O'Donnell acknowledges in characteristically backhanded fashion: "Call it codependency or Stockholm syndrome at its mildest; call it religious partisanship at its most extreme, but even Augustine's severest modern critics find something attractive or fascinating about the man and his work." Readers of this book will certainly wonder why. For O'Donnell, it seems, familiarity has bred contempt. (Apr. 5)
*Starred Review* In a compelling new biography of the great north African bishop, O'Donnell sets out to read between the lines of the Confessiones, a book he knows superlatively well, since he edited the definitive edition. His interest here isn't in what Augustine reveals in that autobiographical classic but in what he did not mention, either because it would have been obvious to his readers or because he wished to distract attention from it. Among the obviousnesses are the conflicting Christianities of the period--Donatist, Arian, and Caecilian, which became Catholicism--of which Augustine's own, Caecilian, was a distinctly minority version helped into prominence by Augustine himself. And Augustine's language: although we may think nothing of his writing in Latin, his use of that language and his dialect of it spoke volumes to his typically polylingual readers. Augustine's contemporaries read him differently than we read him, and O'Donnell provides the theological, historical, and linguistic context in which those earlier readers functioned. As to what Augustine wishes us to not notice, O'Donnell is less expansive, looking for the "darker thread" in the great man's psychology but curiously not addressing such lapses as Augustine's failing to mention how his only son died. Despite such brevity on the personal front, this will become a classic on its subject.
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