The dream of Scipio

by Iain Pears

Paper Book, 2002

Status

Available

Publication

New York: Riverhead Books, 2002.

Description

Set in Provence at three critical moments of Western civilisation and follows the fortunes of three men.

Media reviews

... the plot is certainly dense, if not at times impenetrable. The real benefit and the satisfactions of the book lie not so much in its impressively complex design, but rather in its neat set-piece scenes. ... Civilisation is what The Dream of Scipio and Pears are really all about. Pears is undoubtedly a writer of peculiarly refined sensibilities, and the book is studded with aphorisms. In the end, though, it all boils down to this: "Do we use the barbarians to control barbarism? Can we exploit them so that they preserve civilised values rather than destroy them?" It's a good question. The Dream of Scipio is one answer.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Poquette
It is one thing to read a contemporary novel about the past that transports the reader to a different time and place, recreating reality we can barely imagine but for the skill and knowledge of the writer, and it is quite another to find a single novel that weaves in and out of three historical periods, each separated by many hundreds of years and yet revealing patterns that tie all of them together. Civilization itself is laid bare exposing its pitfalls and its necessities.

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.
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LibraryThing member ElectricRay
There are solemn caveats within these review pages that The Dream of Scipio is substantively different to Pears' extraordinary preceding novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost. Well, I'm not so sure a "compare" isn't a more useful exercise than a "contrast".
Scipio is executed differently, no doubt about it: Where Fingerpost was told, in four instalments, from the perspective of the protagonists, Scipio is narrated in a rather dislocated third person past tense. Pears can't hide his own prose behind the personality of his characters this time, and while it is crisply written, the dialogue is - and its subjects are - remarkably sterile. For example, Pears would have us believe that, having been informed his lover has been carted off to a Nazi concentration camp, a character would complain about it by drawing analogies to Ancient Rome. Now this might fit the intellectual scheme of the novel, but it reads like a dog.

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.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
This was ultimately a very moving story but it took me quite a while to get fully into it - nearly half way through in fact. The idea of the three interlinked time periods is a fascinating one, but the changes between each were often a bit too frequent for me to feel immersed in the story initially, even though I am very interested in all the periods themselves. When I started to feel properly engaged just under half way through, it took off, especially as the similarities between the crisis points in history emerged, the sense of civilisation crumbling around the protagonists and the same scapegoats, the Jews, often being blamed. The fates of the various characters were moving, especially Olivier in the Medieval timeline and Julien and Julia in the WWII one. A worthwhile read then, for which a little effort repays. 4/5… (more)
LibraryThing member lyzadanger
Iain Pears' novel about the ebb of civilizations, virtue and evil spans almost two millennia but very little geographical space: it tells three stories set at the brink of societal chaos in the south of France.

Each of the three is related, and each shares a pattern. Writing echoed situations like this runs the risk of being either too parallel, and thus too obvious, or too vague, leaving the audience searching madly for hidden connections. Pears does an admirable job of navigating between these two rocky shores, giving enough connections between his temporally-scattered characters, but not too much.

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.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
This story of three significant periods in the history of Provence and the interconnected lives of three men living in each time – each linked by a philosophical treatise called “The Dream of Scipio” – would probably require multiple readings to understand the nuances and connections fully. But on first read, it was very engaging following the events in the life of a Roman elite and philosopher witnessing – and perhaps contributing to – the fall of Rome while writing “The Dream”; a poet caught up in the political machinations of the Catholic Church during the Black Plague; and a scholar studying botht he philosopher and the poet from his vantage point in history as the Nazis invade France. All three men are also linked by their loves for formidable and similar women, and the different ways they deal with their love affairs provide most of the suspense. This is a fascinating work of historical fiction with many interesting ideas and themes hidden beneath the surface; even if the author is not entirely successful in pulling together all the myriad pieces of his large tapestry, he does produce an enlightening tale.… (more)
LibraryThing member RavRita
Great book with an interweaving story. Story is based in France, politics, religion, enlightenment, and persecution of those that don’t have money/power. Story is three separate stories with a common theme – this same story can be replicated today and again in a couple of hundred years if we do not learn from our past actions – which obviously we do not. The writer’s ability to use historical characters and have them be an active participant in an historical fiction novel without changing them – is truly a gift.… (more)
LibraryThing member primalprayer
Memorable. I read it a few years ago and I keep thinking about how good it was.
LibraryThing member apartmentcarpet
This was long, boring, and pretentious. I'm sure the historical facts were meticulously researched, and the plot was quite intricate, but that doesn't make up for bad writing.
LibraryThing member JCO123
Slow reading, but very interesting and insightful. Fun to read @ the end
LibraryThing member riverwillow
This is an ambitious novel dealing with issues surrounding love, faith and power as Pears interweaves the stories of three men who live in Avignon during different, but eventful, periods of history. Unfortunately Pears doesn't quite carry it off, and as a result I didn't care about the ultimate fates of the three men and the women that they loved. Which is a shame because Pears has some interesting ideas.… (more)
LibraryThing member MarshaKT
This book has taken almost a full year to get through about half of it. It's complex and thought-provoking - but somehow not all that compelling to get back to,
LibraryThing member EJStevens
A tangled web of three interconnected stories with a central theme of finding love in the face of death and chaos and of doing what is right. Manlius must decide whose side to be on as the Roman Empire falls. Olivier de Noyen is a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time during the spread of the Black Plague. Julien Barneuve is in France as the Natzi's invade during WWII.… (more)
LibraryThing member firebird013
Again Pears uses a variety of viewpoints to explore an idea - in this case the fall into chaos as one civilization falls and a new order has yet to arise. Along with this is the possibility of a woman (women) of great sensitivity seeing with spiritual insight and wisdom what is not understood by the political powers of the day. The first time chosen is the movement from Pagan Rome with its insight into the mysteries, into Christianity with its intolerance for what had gone before. The second is the impact on society of the coming of plague. The final era is France on the verge of collapsing under Nazi invasion. A clever concept carried out competently, but without the deep satisfaction provided by An Instance of the Fingerpost.… (more)
LibraryThing member riotex
The story follows three unrelated men living at different times in history in the same small town in France. Manlius around 400, Olivier around 1400, and Julien 1900's. Different times, but similar circumstances and issues. Manlius deals with the invasion of barbarians during the collapse of Rome, Olivier with the Black Plague, and Julien with the Nazis. They each deal in their own different ways with falling in love during difficult times, how should one live in the face of obstacles. The novel is ambitious and pulls together OK. I had difficulty staying with it and caring about or connecting with three different protagonists and story lines. However, the attempt was interesting and the way Pears infuses the history of the times into the story kept my interest although the stories at time felt a bit flat. I enjoyed the interweaving of history, philosophy and religion - but the core stories got a little dull. A good book if not a great one.… (more)
LibraryThing member woctune
This is (all at the same time) a great novel, a great mystery, and a wonderful discussion about what's most important when the world falls apart.
LibraryThing member stef7sa
Agree with the last reviewers, 3.5 stars. Couldn't finish it, too bored after the first two parts, i.e. 300 pages. The writing is excellent and allows for an easy read but the intertwining of three stories each of which jump back and forth in time causes each of the narratives to progress too slowly. Also, the choice of the author to emphasize the analogies between the stories and their characters makes it difficult to keep them apart. There just isn't enough spice to keep the reader going.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hiensch
A brilliant book about moral dilemma's in three different historical periods.
LibraryThing member quondame
All the blurbs on the back cover of the edition I read are for An Instance of the Fingerpost. That is a much more readable work, unreliable narrators and all. This story is a chopped salad of three historical crisis in Provence, 5th century goth invasion, 14th century plague in Avignon, and the Nazi invasion of France. A manuscript written by the Bishop Manlius in the 5th century is read by the poet secretary Olivier who discovers and transcribes a manuscript and 20th century scholar Julian who studies both Manlius and Olivier trying to delve to the truth behind their writings and legends. As important as an individual woman is to each of these men, Pears really doesn't make them convincing, and his construction either continually gets in the way of his story or is there to obfuscate it's lacks. I really don't like Vichy France as a story setting, but if you are going to pull 3 'end of civil life as we know it' periods from French history, it does limit your choices. I was considerably more interested in the 5th and 14th cent. sections, but felt the 5th was given a bit of a short shrift.… (more)
LibraryThing member maryreinert
I've never studied philosophy and have casual knowledge of history,but I loved this book. Pears is a genius. I actually started at the beginning immediately after I had finished the last page. The book entertained, enlightened, and educated all at the same time. The three major characters were struggling with issues and were acting according to philosphies they thought they believed; but then there is chance, irrational "love" (and who has yet figured that one out), and events of the world. Pears shows that no one can ever direct their own fate. We also learn that events are never quite what they seem, and those who are renown for good or bad may or may not deserve that status. In short, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in people and how we are all products of the world we live in regardless of how focused, directed, or philosophical we may think we are.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
“Any amount of disgrace or infamy can be incurred if great advantage may be gained for a friend.” p 363

Since persistence with An Instance of the Fingerpost was rewarded with a good story, and, despite the cliched ending, I liked Stone’s Fall, too, I decided to give a 3rd Pears novel a try. Mostly I liked it, but found some of the characters too distant to connect with and the narrative changed viewpoints too quickly. Each viewpoint was interesting though and I think that changing them so often was a weakness. I think it forced the reader to consider them against each other too insistently and starkly. As if Pears really wanted to write ‘See here, reader, how I’ve drawn these parallels? See how similar the situations are? See how constants like love, sacrifice and religious persecution are always the same no matter when they occur?’ Yeah, Iain, I got it. I think he should have trusted his readers more and allowed each story/timeline to run its course more fully, the way he did with Fingerpost. Despite each section’s length, I was able to connect the dots between the points of view and I think this book would have been better had the stories run longer in each section.

Each timeline had its draw though. We start with Manlius who is struggling to hold onto his Roman way of life, but constant Barbarian upheavals make it very difficult. Sophia, his wise-woman and dearest love, cannot teach him a philosophy to help him cope. Instead, he decides to turn Christian (a loathsome religion in his eyes) and, in a power play worthy of Caesar himself, gets elected to a bishopric. He hopes that with the might of Christianity on his side, he’ll have a better bargaining position with one of the two barbarian leaders moving into the region.

Sophia is probably the most intriguing character. She is an acetic. A profound thinker and rationalist. Unswayed by any religion, she pursues pure philosophy in the ancient Greek tradition. Despite loving cities and being at heart an urban dweller, she takes up residence in the country in order to escape the constant clamor of the city so she can quietly study and teach the very few students worthy of her mind. Here’s a great summation of her approach and attitude towards the religious and scholarly change -

“It was a duty, not a labor of love, that made her teach, for she could not but be aware that each newcomer to her door, however curious, knew less than the one he replaced. The ability to argue diminished; the grasp of basic concepts weakened; and the knowledge that comes from study grew perpetually less. Christianity, which spread over men’s minds like a blanket, put faith above reason; increasingly those brought up under its influence scorned knowledge and thought. Even those with a spark given to them by the gods wanted to be told, rather than wanted to think. Getting them to accept that the goal was thought itself, not any conclusion at the end of thought, was hard indeed. They came to her for answers, all they got instead were questions.” p 155

Through the distortion of time, she becomes a legend and eventually a saint with many attributed miracles and pilgrims come to her shrine for her guidance. Her transformation through the ages is really interesting and made me think of the countless other legends we have that are probably distorted out of all recognition should the original person be able to see what has happened to their life story. I like to think Sophia would be flattered, and amused, but she’d probably just be disappointed.

Julian is the least accessible character for me despite being the one closest to my own time. I think partially because in southern France during WWII, we already know the outcome and it won’t be good. Like Manlius, he sacrifices his better ideals on the altar of expediency and the idea that if he doesn’t do this awful thing, someone else will do it with more relish and make things worse. At least he can pull his punch so to speak. Julia sums it up well in what she says to him -

“ You are doing things you dislike so that others won’t be able to do worse? [...] The evil committed by good men is the worst of all, because they know better and do it anyway.” p 277

The intensity of wartime privations is well drawn, except that Julien doesn’t really feel them. His wants are sufficiently met and as long as he has Julia with him it’s like a holiday. That made the horrible reality of their final separation all the more painful. He should have seen the political double-dealing that eventually consumed them, but he didn’t.

Both Julien and Manlius try to civilize their invaders, but neither were ultimately successful and it is interesting to know that from the barbarians of Manlius’s time came Julien’s ideal French identity. A culture far and above that of the lowbrow Germans that were bent on destroying it. Same as the Roman civilization had to be inherently better than the Burgundians’. In this effort Manlius was more successful as it seems his barbarian king will uphold Roman law.

The one person I haven’t talked about is Olivier and his story is by far the most removed from the other two, although he has his own woman on a pedestal and the slaughter of Jews in his timeline as well. Olivier is described as having betrayed his patron Cardinal Ceccani, but we don’t know the circumstances. We’re also told that a jealous husband attacked him and cut out his tongue and mauled his hands so that he could no longer communicate. But what does he have to hide? These ideas set us up to dislike him and disapprove of his actions, but of course, those prejudices are all wrong. Instead, Olivier sacrifices his very life for his pedestal woman and allows history to distort his reputation forever in order to save her. It’s a bit romantic, but better than the idea we had of Olivier up until the end.

Overall I would recommend this book to people who like a lot of philosophy and serendipity in their fiction. The omniscient viewpoint works well to illustrate reality and the distortions that happen through history, but distances you from the characters. It’s slow and winding and there isn’t a lot of tension. Instead you’re drawn to the individuality of each story and how one gets woven into the others, even if the players don’t really know the whole truth.
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LibraryThing member pife43
Another classic gem by Iain Pears. Historical fiction that is meticulous in its arrangement and detail and demonstrates the authors rich and artistic writing talent. This author is the standard bearer of historical fiction. His narrative is able to transport a reader into another time and realm. Characters are understood as well on a subconscious level as they are in his portraits. Reading this book is like taking in a beautiful and complex painting. It must be experienced as it is beyond an explanation or review.… (more)
LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
Much more serious – and much slower going than Pears' art history mysteries; unlike those, this book definitely has literary aspirations. The Dream of Scipio actually tells three different stories, (slightly) intertwined by the device of a philosophical manuscript influenced by Cicero, and by the themes of love, political maneuvering, friendship, betrayal – and Europe's persistent anti-Semitism.
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.
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LibraryThing member mngm
An amazing book. I bought this book seven years ago because I was arrested by the first sentence, and a period of invalidism recently caused me to take it down finally and read it. Human and heartbreaking, it follows three narratives in three distinct periods of history. The narratives braid throughout the book and demonstrate that there is nothing new under the sun, for the characters in each period share similar dilemmas and questions even though their pieces of civilization are very different from one another. Each story takes place during a time when that particular way of life is drastically changing, and the characters caught in the upheavals are called upon to make profound choices. What is civilization? Why should it be safeguarded, and by whom?
In addition to being a wonderful historical novel (three, actually), I learned so much from this book. It led me to questions and internet chases that I'm certain I would not pursued had I not read it. It's a dense and chewy read, but very rewarding. Pears is an exceptional storyteller.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Whereas Pears' mystery _An Instance of the Fingerpost_ was chock-full of historical detail, this book is brimming with lots of ideas - about power and how we can sometimes manage (or not) to influence fate. Downgrade to three stars only because I did not feel that this was as cohesive as _Instance_. The three paralell stories seemed a bit forced and I found it confusing at times. Nevertheless, Pears is unique among historical novelists.… (more)
LibraryThing member mbmackay
An ambitious three-part history set in Provence in 475, 1300's & 1940's. Not as successful as his earlier Instance of a Fingerpost.
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