The Barnes & Noble Review
Confirming Ian Pears's prodigious talent, The Dream of Scipio is a stunning meditation on history and moral philosophy that rises to the standard established in his highly acclaimed 1998 novel An Instance of the Fingerpost, the massive, intricate historical mystery that evoked comparisons to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
In The Dream of Scipio, Pears sends his keen imagination through history, braiding together three narratives across three embattled centuries, each of which reflects the cyclical struggle to preserve "civilized" values in the face of impending catastrophe. The earliest narrative thread takes place in the Provençal region of fifth-century Gaul, when the Roman Empire is crumbling and barbarian hordes are pounding at the gates. In the face of the escalating threat, philosopher/aristocrat Manlius Hippomanes devises a scheme to preserve the essence of the Golden Age of Rome. He also composes a document called "The Dream of Scipio," which sets forth in detail his own flawed moral philosophy, a philosophy that resonates throughout the novel.
The second thread is set at the height of the plague years in 14th-century Provence, where Olivier de Noyen -- a poet and fanatical collector of ancient manuscripts (one of which is Manlius's "Dream of Scipio") -- finds himself caught between the internecine rivalries of the Papacy and his obsessive love for an outcast woman. The final thread takes place in Nazi-occupied Provence, where scholar and historian Julien Barneuve becomes immersed in the intertwined histories of Manlius and de Noyen as he conducts a doomed love affair with a Jewish artist. When he reluctantly serves as a censor and minor administrator for the Vichy government, Barneuve comes face-to-face with the human cost of moral corruption and compromised ideals.
The Dream of Scipio is a beautifully constructed, rigorously intelligent novel that brings both the remote and recent past into sharp, precisely detailed focus. Pears brilliantly evokes the politics, passions, and prejudices of three disparate eras and poses difficult questions about personal responsibility and the choices a man must make when his world and way of life come under siege. (Bill Sheehan)
His fans will rejoice in The Dream of Scipio.
[An] ambitious, heartfelt and thought-provoking book, one that should find a home in the heart of every thinking reader.
...Iain Pears has constructed a splendid novel ...
The Dream of Scipio is complex,surprising and thought-provoking,a dream of a novel in more senses than one.
Bottom Line: Eye-opening Dream.
Set in Provence, France, during the fifth, fourteenth and twentieth centuries, this vast and minutely detailed novel weaves together the stories of three men who witness the fall of their respective civilizations. Manlius Hippomanes is a pagan nobleman who becomes a bishop in order to save Gaul from barbarian invaders as the Roman Empire crumbles around him; Olivier de Noyen, a medieval poet living during the years of the Black Death, sacrifices his livelihood and personal safety to save a Jewish servant girl; and Julien Barneuve, a classicist, becomes a reluctant mouthpiece for the collaborationist Vichy government during World War II. These three narratives are united by the themes outlined in an ancient philosophical text called The Dream of Scipio, which was written by Manlius, discovered and transcribed by Olivier and studied by Julien. At times, Pears' weighty themes take precedence over plot and character development, and the narrative lacks dramatic tension. At these moments, this formidably intelligent novel resembles a ponderous treatise more than a fluid and convincing work of fiction.
Critic Harold Bloom once opined that literature is a series of misprisions, or misreadings, by writers of their predecessors. Although Pears might not have had Bloom in mind in his latest novel, the premise is an unlikely embodiment of Bloom's thesis. The story unfolds in three time frames, in each of which a man and a woman are in love, civilization itself is crumbling and Jews become the scapegoats for larger cultural anxieties. In the first scenario, Manlius is a wealthy Roman living in Provence in the empire's crepuscular 5th century. Although he has received the last echo of Hellenic wisdom, he is surrounded by believers in a nasty sect he despises Christianity but must find some means to protect Provence from the barbarians. In fighting for "civilization," he becomes a bishop and the promoter, almost accidentally, of one of the West's first pogroms. In the next narrative time period, a manuscript of Manlius's poem, "The Dream of Scipio," a neo-Platonic allegory, is discovered by Olivier de Noyen, a Proven al poet of the 14th century. As his 20th-century interpreter, Julien Barneuve, discovers in investigating his violent death, de Noyen was attacked because he got caught up in a political intrigue in Avignon while trying to save his love, Rebecca, from a pogrom unleashed by the Black Death. Barneuve, Pears's third protagonist, has a Jewish lover, too, but is enmeshed in the racist policies of Vichy France. Pears has a nice sense of what it means to live in a time when things fall apart, and not only the center but even the peripheries will not hold. But the readers who flocked to An Instance of the Fingerpost might not find the pages turning so fast in this less mystery-driven outing. Rights sold in Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden, and the U.K. (June 10) Forecast: Though it won't be such an easy sell as his mysteries, Pears's latest (with a first printing of 75,000 and $150,000 ad/promo) should attract critical attention for its complex treatment of provocative historical and moral themes. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Pears writes historical fiction with such density and depth that the reader becomes immersed not in one distant time period but in three. Like twisted strands of golden thread forming the braid of an epaulette, he conveys stories of the end of the Roman Empire, the time of the Black Plague, and the years of World War II. As different as these times are, he shows their parallels and their similarities as periods in history, like our own, in which things seem to be going out of control. The book calls for careful reading as it is told in short chapters that mix the time periods almost randomly. Characters from the past are known in the present and influence the thinking and the events of each of the periods until they all become the story of living in difficult times. Pears' writing of the past makes the reader reflect on the present as well and demands careful consideration or some previous knowledge of the times he recounts in order to understand the interaction of politics, religion, love and human relationships. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Penguin Putnam, 398p. map.,
In the 400s, as the Roman Empire settles into dust, landowner-turned-bishop Manlius attempts to record the ideas of his teacher, the Neo-Platonist Sophia. In the 1300s, this treatise ("The Dream of Scipio") is discovered by poet Olivier de Noyen, whose efforts to understand it lead him to a learned Jew and a secret love that forces upon him a momentous moral decision while the plague ravages the countryside. In the 1930s, Julien Barneuve encounters de Noyen and his references to the wondrous treatise, even as the Holocaust looms and Barneuve struggles desperately to protect the woman he loves a painter and a Jew. The writing here is not as felicitous as in Pears's magisterial An Instance of the Fingerpost, but the plotting is a marvel; the text moves smoothly among the three eras, drawing parallels that rarely seem forced. In the end, Pears asks good, cutting questions about the idea of civilization, showing that those who claim to preserve it are often its worst enemies. Most libraries will want this. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The truism that "The evil done by men of goodwill is the worst of all" is given memorable expression in this brilliantly constructed historical novel from the British author of the runaway success An Instance of the Fingerpost. The title denotes a treatise on Neoplatonism composed by Manlius, a fifth-century (b.c.) nobleman and intellectual living in what would become known as Provence, who made it his mission to oppose "civilized values" to the threat of "barbarism"-through his scholarship, and also by securing a bishopric, then raising armies to protect Rome from invasion. The complex failure of Manlius's own "dream" is juxtaposed against two parallel stories, which are literally linked to the history of his manuscript and whose protagonists suffer the corruption of their own ideals in hauntingly similar fashion. The 14th-century poet Olivier de Noyen, a collector of manuscripts for the flamboyant Avignon papacy, heroically resists the machinations employed by Pope Clement VI to turn popular hatred of Jews into an explanation for the Black Plague as divine punishment-and pays a horrific price for his commitment to moral action. And in the years of WWII, as "Free France" succumbs to German invasion, historian Julien Barneuve (whose studies have led him to Manlius's text, preserved through de Noyen's efforts) reluctantly becomes "a censor and a propagandist" for a government that seizes on anti-Semitism to ensure its own survival-and is consumed in a personal holocaust. Each of the three men is ennobled, and victimized, by his love for a woman chosen to be sacrificed for a "greater good." And each endures a separation illustrating the Platonic concept that virtue is wholeness, evilthe violent sundering of an ideal unity of harmonized parts. This imposingly intricate novel begins slowly, makes heavy demands on the reader, and rises to a stunningly dramatic crescendo. Pears has leapt to a new level, creating a novel of ideas even more suspenseful and revelatory than his justly acclaimed mysteries.