A Review of Iain Pears’ The Dream of Scipio

Pears is a powerful historian and his research is impeccable. The links between the three stories are handled well, and it is very interesting to watch a similar drama simultaneously playing itself out in very different contexts, albeit on the same ground. We are given a godlike gift of being able to watch the movement of historically cyclically rather than in a linear fashion, and to be able to identify with the difficulties faced by the characters.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Dream of Scipio
by Iain Pears
Jonathan Cape (Random House), 2002
ISBN 0-224006188-7
softcover, 393 pages

Iain Pears’ second serious work of literary fiction The Dream of Scipio is, like his previous bestseller, An Instance of the Fingerpost the sort of book that defies categorisation. It is part historical fiction, spanning 3 linked, but very different eras: the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, the rise and collapse of the Roman papacy in the 14th century during the time when the Bubonic Plague was at its worst and the end of World War Two in the 20th Century. All of the eras are traced from the same location, primarily in Avignon, France, where the papacy was located during the 14th c, and which was occupied by Germany during the Second World War. Woven amidst the history, are the characters’ personal stories, and in particular, the love stories of the three main characters, Manlius Hippomanes, Olivier de Noyen and Julien Barneuve. Each of these men are shaped and impacted upon by their great loves, and the philosophical conundrum at the heart of their stories.

There are also heavy threads of classical philosophy underpinning the stories, primarily The Dream of Scipio, originally a neo-Platonic tract written by Cicero, which concerns a dream in which the character Scipio is told about the nature of the soul, the responsibility of man on earth, and the temporal nature of life on earth. Later Manlius writes his own version, which is found by Olivier in a monastery. Later Julian comes upon it in the Vatican Library, and spends many years working on the tract, and retranslating it in conjunction with his knowledge of Olivier’s poetry and life. These characters, centuries apart, are linked by this tract, by their love, by their own sense of beauty and intellect and by their place in a pivotal historical context. They are united in their struggles between the notion of civilisation and empire, and by their pondering of the relationship between intellect and action. The links between each of the separate stories makes for interesting reading, and the big philosophical questions raised by Pears are important ones about the nature of civilisation, the its relationship to the world of the personal – love and bigotry. Which is greater asks Pears? Is it the maintenance of order and control, of a big power canvas, or of personal redemption and the achievement of individual mercies. Is there such a difference? Do we either play politics or cultivate our gardens? Is it even meaningful to talk about notions of fame and posterity? It is to Pears’ credit that he doesn’t answer these questions, but rather opens the door, Sophia like, to allow the reader to see the impact of different ways of addressing these issues in times of crisis and providing a debate for us to work through ourselves.

Pears is a powerful historian and his research is impeccable. The links between the three stories are handled well, and it is very interesting to watch a similar drama simultaneously playing itself out in very different contexts, albeit on the same ground. We are given a godlike gift of being able to watch the movement of historically cyclically rather than in a linear fashion, and to be able to identify with the difficulties faced by the characters.

The transitions between each short chapter can be jarring however, as is the thick layer of classical philosophy which undermines some of the action. Just as soon as the reader becomes seriously involved in the lives of each of the characters, we move back or forward to another story, and this interrupts the flow. Perhaps this irritation is partly due to the exceptional writing, and our desire to see out the stories of each era, rather than being forced to contemplate the links, or the bigger issues which underlie each story. That may not be a fault. This is a big book, and one which moves slowly, due primarily to its complex tripartite structure. While each story moves quickly, we are not allowed to move along with them – these are not our lives. We are not permitted to become caught up in Manlius’ machinations and betrayals, Olivier’s playful text gathering and love story or in Julian’s role in the war, but rather are continually forced to contemplate the parallels and the ideas, just as Olivier had to do with Manlius and Julian had to do with Olivier. We have our own stories to live out; our own platform for action. This may make for a less pleasant reading experience, but renders the novel more powerful in retrospect.

Despite their roles as philosophic gurus, the female characters have their own limitations which are hinted at, and some of these limitations may be more interesting to the modern reader than their philosophical high ground. Sophia’s suppressed desire and frigidity are hinted at in: “No doubt a psychoanalyst, excited with his new knowledge in Julian’s epoch and convinced his skills could be applied universally and eternally, would have made much of this. Had he been able to read the letters that the two exchanged over the next fifteen years, some three hundred in all, he would have dissected their souls and their lives, turned over Sophia’s thoughts about her father, analysed her views on eternity and death, and rested content with a conclusion of extreme neurosis.” Clearly the narrator doesn’t agree with this modern verdict however, set in such sarcastic terms. Sophia’s mysticism is something more than personal neurosis, and her aestheticism, however hard won, is also bigger than her own feelings. Rebecca’s personal vendetta and her attempts at cutting herself off from the world and living as a Jewish servant, also becomes something bigger as she becomes an agent of change for Jewry in her time. Julia’s grabbling with her self-image and relationship with her father is again subsumed in her ability to use her art to create something larger and release something powerful in the world. Each of the women know instinctively what the men are grappling with, freed naturally by virtue of their sex from the overwhelming need to play a formal historical role, and each finds a kind of absolution or freedom which the men never achieve: “Just as Pisano has turned the blind man and the saint- Manlius and Sophia as he now thought – into Olivier and the woman he loved, so Julia had found her solution by continuing what he had done, transforming them once again into herself and into him. A triple portrait, around the same theme: making the blind see.”

Another interesting thread which runs through the three stories is the relationship between Judaism and the repeating human need to create scapegoats, and the “heretics” with their Hindu-like belief in the illusory nature of this world and the permanence of the soul. There is Clemant’s early meeting with the steadfast heretics, which later becomes directly linked to Rebecca’s story and Clemant’s ultimate protection, “Cum Natura Humana”. There are also other small mysteries which drive the narrative forward. There is the central mystery of Olivier’s relationship with Isabel de Frejus and his cryptic poetry. There is the mystery of Manlius’ Dream of Scipio which doesn’t fit with his Christian role as the Bishop of Vaison. Throughout the novel are betrayals, small and large, wars, small and large, struggles for power, small and large, and although the action doesn’t move forward in nearly as driving a way as An Instance of the Fingerpost (Dream of Scipio is a novel you can put down and take in measured bits), there is much ongoing food for thought and the book is constructed very well.

The story begins and ends with the same death, and much of what each character fights for is lost, as history marches forward and human nature destroys that which matters. For his own sacrifice, Olivier manages to secure “Cum Natura Humana” of Clement VI, which protected the Jews under the Pope’s personal protection, but it is dramatically undone in both world wars, especially World War Two. Manlius betrays his son, his best friend and ultimately his mentor, in aid of an empire which is already lost. Julian’s sacrifice saves his friend but it is a meaningless act which only leads to more senseless deaths, and only buys his friend a few weeks. Even on a small scale, Pisano escapes his fate with de Frejus only to end up like so many others of his era, lost in a mass of festering black bubos. The story is over before it begins. History is already the past. Does each act of humanism have its own value? Does every life saved matter, even if more are lost as a result? What is virtue anyway? Are we all culpable, as Julian finally discovers, in the barbarity which is the flip side of civiliation:

I thought in this simple contrast between the civilised and the barbaric, but I was wrong. It is the civilised who are the truly barbaric, and the Germans are merely a supreme expression of it…what they are doing goes far beyond the war. Something unparalleled in human history. The ultimate achievement of civilisation. Just think about it. How do you annihilate so many people? You need contributions from so many quarters. Scientists to prove Jews are inferior; theologians to provide the moral tone. Industrialists to build the trains and the camps. Technicians to design the guns…Whatever benefits we bring to mankind in the future, we killed the jews.

Devotees of An Instance of the Fingerpost may be disappointed with the pace of this much slower and perhaps conceptually and structurally more ambitious novel, but it is no less a significant piece of literature.

For more information on Dream of Scipio visit: The Dream of Scipio

For the full text of Cicero’s The Dream of Scipio, visit: http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ROME/SCIPIO.HTM