Dark, erudite and like An Instance of the Fingerpost, utterly compelling, The Dream of Scipio confirms Iain Pears as one of Britain's most imaginative novelists Set in Provence at three different critical moments of Western Civilisation - the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the Black Death in the fourteenth, and the Second World War in the twentieth - The Dream of Scipio follows the fortunes of three men: Manlius Hippomanes, a Gallic aristocrat obsessed with the preservation of Roman civilisation, Olivier de Noyen, a poet, and Julien Barneuve, an intellectual who joins the Vichy government. The story of each man is woven through the narrative, linked by the classical text that gives the book its title, and by each man's love for an extraordinary woman. 'Irresistibly seizes the imagination' Evening Standard
The tone of this novel is almost that of a reverie even though it opens with the immolation of one of the novel's three main characters Julien Barneuve, a scholar of literary history, the most contemporary of the three, who was born around the beginning of the twentieth century and died in 1943 in the midst of World War II and the German occupation of France. In 1926 he was working in the papal archives in pursuit of a Provençal poet active during the mid 1300s named Olivier de Noyen. There amidst the papers of Olivier's patron, a cardinal of the Church at Avignon, he discovered a forgotten manuscript that had been written in the late 400s by one Manlius Hippomanes, an aristocratic landholder whose writings indicated he was a Neoplatonist, but whose historical significance had arisen out of his late conversion to Christianity and very rapid elevation to cardinal. Traditions around his name indicated that he was a saint.
What tied these three individuals together was that manuscript of Manlius. But more than that, each of them was a philosopher to one degree or another, and each flourished in the same place — Provençal — at a pivotal time in history when civilization itself appeared to be on the verge of crumbling.
In the 400s the Roman Empire in the west was being overrun by wave after wave of barbarian interlopers. The authority of the state had been greatly diminished, and the real power was accruing to the Church. The great landholders in southern Gaul faced shortages of labor because the slaves were deserting, plus the only protection available was that of paid soldiers, and even that was often insufficient. The great villas were crumbling from disuse, and security was a thing of the past. The sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths had sounded what seemed to many like a death knell of civilization.
In 1310 the political situation in Rome was so difficult the papacy moved to Avignon in the south of France. By this time the so-called barbarian invaders had been assimilated. The most pressing difficulty facing southern France was the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War with England in 1337. But that was before the Black Death arrived in 1348. Cities like Avignon turned into ghost towns due to the collapse of the population. Again, it looked like the end of civilization.
The fall of France in 1940 to the German invasion likewise created havoc between the horrors of war, decimation of the population and shortages of the necessities of living. The Germans had proclaimed a thousand-year Reich, but to the French it seemed like a death warrant, and once again there was a sense of gloom for the prospects of civilization.
On those happy notes, Julien's study of Manlius's manuscript and Olivier's poetry and the known elements of their lives caused him to arrive at some interesting and even somewhat shocking conclusions about said civilization.
The manuscript of Manlius was an extended meditation on The Dream of Scipio from Cicero's De re publica. It was the report of a dream about Scipio, not the famous dream itself, and the philosophy expounded was Neoplatonic as contrasted with Christian doctrine. As an introduction to Neoplatonism which by this time had become not merely a school of philosophy but almost a set of quasi-religious beliefs, this novel would not be a bad place to begin.
Julien, Olivier and Manlius have many things in common. They are all thirsty for knowledge, and each is graced by the companionship of an important female figure. Each is faced with reconciling their philosophical leanings with reality and with the prevailing authorities with whom each is at odds to some degree. We are witness to how they each cope with hardship, cruelty and despair. Not only is the survival of civilization a prevailing theme, but also questions surrounding individual and political loyalty and personal and public virtue arise in each man's life. The historical, philosophical and even romantic elements are played out and contrasted so as to make for a quite compelling novel which will either send the reader back to page one to read it again — for the effect is cumulative and begs for clarification — or to the history books to fill in the blanks about what really happened in those pivotal periods of impending collapse.
All ends badly for each of these men, their lives, their loves, their very cultural roots are torn up, and grosser and grosser perversions of right and good thinking and living, fueled explicitly by Christians and their revolting religion, take hold and choke reason.
My Review: Well, no one can say it's not a subject I relate to and support. Too bad it's such a mess. The task of keeping three stories aloft while making sure that each is adding to the others is a daunting one. I don't think Pears did an especially good job of it. The transitions between narratives, all in third person limited PoV, are not keyed to anything that I can discern. I readily acknowledge that I could simply lack the cultural referents and/or the subtlety of mind to recognize them. I simply found the movement through time to be jarring and poorly handled.
But overall, this cautionary tale is one well worth considering. The role of "faith" in the decline of common sense in the public discourse is readily seen in our own time, and the horrifying results...teenagers bullied to death, consenting adults prevented from exercising their civil rights because of some ancient and culture-specific "divine" law irrelevant to modern times...surround us daily. Human beings cannot be trusted with piety. It's not something that becomes us as a species. It's quite the opposite of its stated goal, is piety: Instead of creating peace and harmony, it creates hatred and judgment. It certainly does so in me. And I am not a remarkable human being, but pretty darned average in my responses: I don't like people who don't like me.
Religion, sadly, in the hands of human beings, doesn't make that problem better, but rather creates a horrible echo chamber for the least worthy and most common feelings to be fed back upon themselves. Woe betide those who try to stand against this noisy tide...Pears points up the futility of this, while making sure we understand its absolute necessity.
I wish I believed that reading this book would change hearts and minds, so I could yodel a call to read it NOW from the housetops. It's too rareified, too precious, to make a general audience sit up and take notice. And it's not well enough executed to become the coffee-table adornment of the socially pretentious reader, either, so...here it is. Read it if you agree already, if not don't bother.
And isn't that the saddest sentence ever.
Scipio is executed differently, no doubt
In Scipio, instead of four very different accounts of the same sequence of events, we have one account of three very different sequences of events - or do we? The parallels between the three sagas in Scipio are extraordinary, as if exactly the same scenario were playing out each time, History were repeating itself, only through the eyes of a different observer. This is really no more than a slight variation on the programme Pears adopted for Fingerpost.
For all that, and despite being a good deal shorter, Scipio is by far the harder book to get through. Especially compared to their living, breathing, stinking counterparts in the Fingerpost, the characters of Scipio are off-puttingly one-dimensional. Barneuve in particular has no flesh to him at all.
You get the sense here, far more than in Fingerpost, that this is the work of a doddery old academic written to please no-one but himself. I guess that's the licence granted by the extraordinary success of An Instance of the Fingerpost. The Dream of Scipio is erudite for the sake of being erudite, and at the expense of being entertaining.
The Dream of Scipio is certainly a very clever, learned book and, at the death, extremely absorbing, but it burns too coldly in getting there to match the success of An Instance of the Fingerpost.
Each of the three is related, and each shares a pattern. Writing echoed situations like
All three take place at historical pivot points, at times when the survival of western civilization is not assured. But Pears is not telling the story of the crises themselves, at least not directly. What he is focused on is characters in those times, who see the looming disaster in the offing, but whose own personal disasters crest before the ones that made it into the history books.
Manlius, a worldly, epicurean landowner in late Antiquity, has to figure out how to keep at least part of southern Gaul safe from barbarians massing in the north, while around him the scaffolding of the fading Roman empire collapses.
Olivier de Noyen, a spunky medieval poet and fiery-hearted lad, instigates himself between the encroaching, obliterating Black Death and the furious, murderous anti-Semitic mobs bent on finding justice, somewhere, anywhere.
And Julien Barneuve, a slightly milquetoast and ultimately impenetrable academic, spends his days in libraries trying to piece together the pieces of Manlius' and Oliviers' fates, until World War II puts him in an impossible moral position.
For all three men, destiny is set in the form of a woman. For Manlius, the steady and wise philosopher, Sophia. Olivier has Rebecca, the servant of a Rabbi, and Julien, like-named Julia, an artist, who is, dangerously, Jewish.
Pears' stage is set for intricate unrolling of a fascinating tale. And nothing is done badly. Yet, looking back on the story, its investigations of great evils, and, possibly more insidious, smaller evils, of the responsibilities of civilization and the importance of understanding--for all of these admirable themes, the book didn't leave a blaze of meaning in my memory. The plot is more delicate than the times seem to demand, the philosophical examinations sometimes wandering and grandiose.
Beautifully structured, academically sound, 'The Dream of Scipio' is worth a read. But it might not change your life.
Read Samoa Jan 2004
As Pears describes the titular document, the book is "partly... a discourse on love and friendship and the connection between those and the life of the soul and the exercise of virtue."
It repeatedly, from different angles, examines the questions of whether evil done by those with good intentions is a greater evil than others, or whether evil committed for a greater good can be justified.
The reader explores these themes through the stories of: Manlius, a powerful Roman at the age of the decline of the Empire, and his love/muse, the philosopher Sophia. Olivier, a medieval seeker after knowledge and the girl from the Jewish ghetto that he falls in love with Rebecca. Julien, a European at the outbreak of WWII and his love, Julia, also Jewish.
Not an easy or lighthearted book, but many may find it worth the time.