by Saint Augustine
translated by Peter Constantine
Readers who recall the big, marvelous WW Norton edition of the complete works of Isaac Babel from over a decade ago will remember the vivid, otherworldly experience of reading it, and of course a large part of that experience was the handiwork of translator Peter Constantine, who has now, intriguingly, turned his hand to translating one of the strangest and most fundamental works of the Western canon, the Confessions of Saint Augustine. This new edition from Liveright features a Foreword by Jack Miles and an Introduction by Constantine himself, and something of the Confession's enigmatic quality that has fascinated readers for the last 1600 years can be glimpsed even by reading the few pages of this prefatory matter. Miles quotes the great Peter Brown: “Augustine's back is turned to us throughout the Confessions. His attention is elsewhere. He is speaking with his God.” Whereas Constantine seems almost to be describing a different writer and is certainly describing a different reading experience:
While Marcus Aurelius keeps a distance between himself and his readers, Augustine is the first autobiographer to achieve a warm and intimate bond with his audience, creating the first confessional intimacy of modern autobiography that brings the reader into a private and personal sphere of the writer.
But Constantine's translation is the main attraction here; it's reasonable to assume that most readers coming to this elegant Liveright volume won't be able to read St. Augustine in the original – they'll find in this English-language rendition and others (including Sarah Ruden's excellent translation from 2017) a fascinating composite of authors and will listen for the Augustine who speaks most directly to them. This translation is more conversational than most, with a stress on the confessional aspect of the Confessions that tends to upend the usual pattern of translations of this work by gaining strength rather than losing it as Augustine slowly swaps out the book's personal autobiography for incantatory addresses to God:
We may behold, Lord, the heavens, the work of Your fingers. Disperse from our eyes the cloud You have spread before them. It is there that Your statutes are, making wise the simple: my God, make perfect Your praise out of the mouths of infants and sucklings. Nor do we know other books that so destroy pride, that so destroy the enemy and the defender who resists Your reconciliation by defending his own sins. I do not know, Lord, I do not know any other such pure words, that so persuade me to confess and soften my neck to Your yoke, and invite me willingly to serve You. May I understand these words, good Father: grant this to me who have submitted to them, for you have so solidly established them for those who have submitted themselves to them.
Constantine opts to include his textual notes at the end of each of the work's individual books rather than lumping them all together at the end, and this is not only helpful (no distracted constant flipping to the back) but adds to the feeling of dialogue that permeates this volume. There's still a strong feeling of eavesdropping, perhaps inappropriately, on the most private one-sided conversation imaginable, but we're lucky to have such an acutely observant guide.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.