Visions of Paradise

Sunday, August 15, 2004

A Dream of Scipio

After reading Iain Pears’ wonderful historical novel An Instance of the Fingerpost, I anxiously awaited the paperback publication of his newest novel A Dream of Scipio. The wait was well worthwhile, because this novel is every bit as fascinating and thought-provoking as its predecessor. The novel examines the similarities between three men living in France during particularly-trying times in that country’s history:

Manlius is a rich agnostic during the waning years of the Roman Empire when barbarian tribes are invading France. The emperor has failed to halt the tribes’ inroads, and people are dismantling many of their wealthy homes to use the materials to build protective walls against the invading horde. Manlius decides the best way to protect his people is by becoming the area’s bishop, since the Catholic Church is one of the few powerful organizations left. So he uses his influence to buy that position and we watch him try to defend France from the barbarians.

Manlius is also a scholar who has formed a close friendship with a pagan philosopher named Sophia whom he takes under his wing and protects, while she becomes such an important advisor to so many area people that after her death the legend of “Saint Sophia” arises, even though she is a decidedly non-Christian philosopher.

Olivier is a poet during the 14th century when France is experiencing the first signs of the Black Plague. He is a protegeé of Cardinal Ceccani during the Avignon papacy and best friends with Pisano, an artist assigned to work in area churches. We watch Olivier and Ceccani struggle to protect their people against the plague, while Pisano strives to achieve renown as an artist.

Finally, Julien is a scholar during the 1930s when Nazism is sweeping across Europe. His best friend– although definitely not his lover–is a Jewish artist named Julia who is struggling as an impressionist painter. One of the highlights of the novel is a meeting between her and a very self-absorbed Picasso when he is still an unknown and she is a precocious ten-year old.

The connection between the three men, in addition to how each strives to defend France, is that Olivier is studying a philosophical work written by Manlius entitled A Dream of Scipio, while one of the historical figures Julien is studying is Olivier who later in his life apparently ran afoul of a rich merchant who ordered his tongue and hands cut off to prevent him from possibly writing or dictating poetry ever again.

Each segment of the novel has similarities to the other two: Manlius is protecting Avignon against the invasion of barbarians in the 4th century, Olivier against the Black Plague in the 14th century, and Julien against the Nazis in the 20th century. Both Manlius and Julien are powerful Gaul / Frenchman who use their connections to cooperate with the Burgundians / Nazis, both putting the greater good of all citizens above that of a few. But the connection between the three men is only a small part of the novel’s emphasis. Each parallel segment is a rich character study interwoven with a complex plot which races to a thrilling conclusion even as the characters themselves are deepening and becoming fully-revealed to the reader.

Besides being successful as both a character study and a well-plotted page-turner, The Dream of Scipio is also a strongly-philosophical book in which Pears has gone to great lengths to investigate the nature of civilization and whether the good of the many overrules the rights of the few. This issue was important in all three centuries, and studying it was part of the connecting fiber between the writings of Manlius which was studied by Olivier and Julien in turn, as well as part of the philosophy espoused by Manlius’ pagan teacher Sophia and Olivier’s Jewish teacher Gersonides.

Pears’ depiction of all three historical eras was wonderful, providing the type of sense of wonder that great historical fiction strives to do. I was able to visualize all three eras and felt drawn into them easily, a tribute to Pears’ talents as a writer.

I have always felt that, for me at least, the ideal novel should combine equal parts characterization, plot, sense of wonder and thoughtfulness. Such a novel comes around a few times a decade, and it is always an occasion for joy. A few issues ago I was lamenting that writers who publish a masterpiece rarely follow it up with a novel equally-good. Pears has succeeded on both counts, and must be included among the finest writers today. I recommend this book very highly indeed.


  • The dream of scipio is a novel filled with painful pages and is overall confusing. DO NOT READ IT!

    By Blogger Bill, At 3:30 PM  

  • Bill is right and wrong in his review because although it may seem confusing it is becase the three storylines are intertwined in the book. Somewhere online there is a list that shows which pages correspond to a specific storyline. I liked the book because it was almost like a scavenger hunt following the storylines! I would reccomend getting some background knowledge on the time periods before reading the book and also to read them in the order of age: Roman, Medieval, Modern.

    By Blogger Nate Trudeau, At 2:21 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Nate Trudeau, At 2:22 PM  

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