"THE DREAM OF SCIPIO, Iain Pears' first mainstream novel since AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, is a work of astonishing ambition that appeals equally to the head and heart. It is 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 - and follows the fortunes of three men. he 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. The narratives intertwine seamlessly, but what joins them thematically is an ancient text - 'The Dream of Scipio' - a work of neo-Platonism that poses timeless philosophical questions. xpertly imagined and perfectly realised, THE DREAM OF SCIPIO is a bonafide novel of ideas, a dazzling feat of storytelling, a fiction for our times. Dense, dark, erudite and yet utterly compelling."
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 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.
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.
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.
This book deals with how a Roman nobleman in Gaul plans to deal with the threat of Euric the Visigoth in 475 AD. The second crisis occurs during the Avignon papacy in the fourteenth century, and the third major threat afflicts France and Europe during World War II. The principal premise here is the often-forgotten value of beliefs from the East and Asia. The Christian Church too often compels its adherents to act as nothing more than benighted, superstitious fools.
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.
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.
Read Samoa Jan 2004