150 of 160 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A multidimensional, open ended morality tale
Your reaction to Iain Pears' new novel is likely to depend on what you liked about "Instance of the Fingerpost." If it was the Chinese puzzle box of its plot within a plot within a plot, you won't find that here. "The Dream of Scipio" places its bets on depth rather than cleverness. Was it the colorful, cunning, swaggering characters, telling their stories in memorably...
Published on July 9, 2002 by Royce E. Buehler
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Do not expect a new Fingerpost - but be ready to be challenged
This is a 3.5 stars really, once I got into this book (like other reviewers I did finally only after having read the first 150 pages), I really started to appreciate the questions posed. One has to come to the answers oneself. A few are pretty clear - civilization is what we the people make of it together, and christianity is flawed. If you come to this for historical...
Published on August 1, 2010 by T. Eagan
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150 of 160 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A multidimensional, open ended morality tale,
Your reaction to Iain Pears' new novel is likely to depend on what you liked about "Instance of the Fingerpost." If it was the Chinese puzzle box of its plot within a plot within a plot, you won't find that here. "The Dream of Scipio" places its bets on depth rather than cleverness. Was it the colorful, cunning, swaggering characters, telling their stories in memorably distinct voices? Calm, third person narrative is the rule this time. Our three main characters - the gregarious aristocrat Manlius Hippomanes, in the final months of the Roman Empire; the impetuous itinerant poet Olivier de Noyen, caught up in papal politics as the Black Death descends on Avignon; and the reclusive historian Julien Barneuve, coping with the demands of the Vichy regime during the Nazi hegemony - are all restrained and bookish men who aspire to live above the storms of passion. Many readers will find them disappointingly bloodless, but I'm not sure this is a flaw. Despite the three peculiar, parallel love stories at the center of the plot, this work intends to be classical rather than romantic in spirit.
But if you are the sort of person who dips into Gibbon's Decline and Fall for pleasure; if what attracted you to "Fingerpost" was the way it made bygone, alien ways of being human palpable; or the subtlety of its characters' intrigues and political calculations; or its philosophical sophistication; or its grasp of both the moral ambiguity of the human situation, and the imperative to behave morally in the face of that ambiguity - then "The Dream of Scipio" will give you at least the same level of satisfaction as the last book.
Be warned that there are murders here (what is human history if not a catalogue of murders?), but no murder mystery. There are elaborate compositional patterns to be noted, and a good deal of real history to be learned, but no "Name of the Rose" style conumdrums to be unravelled. Nevertheless, you'll be left bristling with questions - not the kind of questions that make you instantly begin rereading in order to collect clues, but the kind that make you hungry for a book club so the questions can be thought through in company: What is civilization, really, and why should we value it? What is and is not worth sacrificing in order to preserve it? What makes an act virtuous, its intents or its effects? Unlike most "idea" books, this one doesn't push one set of answers on you, rather it sets out the dilemmas, through concrete hard cases, in all their painful unresolvability.
Four and a half stars, highly recommended, but be aware of what you're getting into.
112 of 119 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A serious and stimulating novel for our times.,
In this remarkable and hugely conceived novel of ideas, Pears gives us three intense, emotionally gripping stories set in Provence during the fifth, fourteenth, and 20th centuries. In each of these, a sensitive and thoughtful man of letters faces not only a crisis of belief, but also of action, as outside forces threaten to destroy civilization as he knows it. As each man fights to save the values he finds important, Pears explores the ethical underpinnings of western thought and history, those ideas first proffered by Plato which continue to influence men and governments two thousand years later.
A mysterious 5th century manuscript by Manlius Hippomanes connects the parallel plots and eras: the waning days of the Roman Empire, as the barbarian hordes attack Gaul's borders and Manlius Hippomanes writes The Dream of Scipio; the 14th century in Avignon, when poet Olivier de Noyen discovers some of Manlius's writing and deals with papal intrigue, the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death; and the Vichy government in France during World War II, when Julien Barneuve, a scholar who has traced the Manlius manuscript, joins the Vichy government in an effort to "civilize" the German occupiers and prevent deportation of the Jews.
This is not a beach book--its excitement is far more thoughtful than sensational. Pears' characters are real, flawed people living and loving in times of crisis and experiencing conflicts with parents, teachers, friends, and mentors. These conflicts clearly parallel those in the wider world of their political alliances and governments, and ultimately affect their attitudes toward humankind in general. Beautiful love stories, which bring warmth to the narrative, are portrayed with the delicacy such fragile relationships deserve and the strength which allows them to endure. As we, too, face uncertain times and threats to our own civilization, Pears offers a reflective and thought-provoking framework for contemplating our own future. Mary Whipple
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better on 2nd read,
By A Customer
This book is excellent. For the first time for any novel, I actually started re-reading it the same day I finished it. Like some other reviews say, if you are expecting "Fingerpost 2", this is not it.
This story is not about events that need to be solved, but is about the motives of the people, what they believed, when, why, and how their actions changed. It is a well-balanced blend of history, philosophy, some romance (not as much as the jacket cover implies), and the choices that individuals can make. And, interestly, even though it is fairly clear where Pears comes out on the choices, the presentations of the characters were not basic black-n-white. Each character has some good reasons for what they did. And, each choice has some abiguity to it. No choice yields a 100% balance on the scales of justice.
From this standpoint, this is what I like best about Pears's writing. He is able to create a story that comes close to feeling real because events do not seem force-fitted to make things come out "right". Plus, he apparently does quite a bit of research to get the feel of the time right.
His choices of time were also fascinating. The end of the Roman empire because it was clear that it was the end and this impacted how people reacted. The period of the Black Death when there really could be no sense of historical trend because the plague was a random occurrence, not from the actions of men. And, the German occupation of France where, in general, it was clear the Germans would lose so people could make choices toward an expected result. Each context makes certain choices potentially more reasonable than others. No free lunches on exactly what the right answers are.
I plan on re-reading this again after I get through some other books that have been waiting while I spent my time with this one.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Really should be 4 and 1/2 stars,
Having read An Instance of the Fingerpost (and loved it), I came to this novel with high expectations. I found the first hundred or so pages very tough going (truly brutal), and I just about gave up on the book. If I hadn't read Pears' work before, I probably wouldn't have finished this, and I would have missed the fabulous rest of the novel.
The three stories are intertwined, and they each have an integral part in the other two tales. The last 50 or so pages are wonderful, thought-provoking, and probably controversial for its conclusion. I think any reader who finds the subject matter interesting, i.e. the nature of civilization and the philosophy of civilizing influences, will probably have the "mental toughness" to slog through the difficult beginning. Take it from this reader that it is all worthwhile in the end.
A few warnings regarding the book: this is a novel of ideas, and, as such, none of the characters (except perhaps Julian in WWII era Avignon) are particularly well-developed -- certainly none as compelling as in Instance's narrators; idealistic readers will probably be disappointed by the unrelenting pragmatism of this work (sort of like attending a Jesuit university).
If you are willing to invest the time and effort, this book is well worth it.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not a beach book for sure!,
This review is from: The Dream of Scipio (Paperback)
"Scipio" is one of the best novels I've read in years, and I read a lot! Be forewarned by the few negative reviews here on Amazon--to fully appreciate this book you should be interested in history, philosophy, and above all willing to think about how one discerns the right course of action when presented with a moral dilemma. If you're willing to take on the challenge, you're in for a treat!
Pears presents the story of three men in three different historical periods in Southern France. The paralells are eerie--in each case the world is sliding into chaos--the fall of the Roman Empire, the scourge of the Black Death, and the occupation of France by the Germans in WWII. Each man is presented with the same moral dilemmas--does one fight shoulder to shoulder with one's friends in a cause that is probably hopeless? should one betray a friend to save many others? is following our principles at all important when the world crumbles around us? is saving "civilization" the highest goal--or our our responsibilities less lofty--to our family and friends and those we love?
Each protagonist has a love in his life, a dark haired muse, and Pears weaves three unconventional but utterly believable love stories through the novel. That this is also a literary device to verbalize the moral issues presented doesn't ruin the portraits of these three independent, thoughtful, courageous women.
The role of the Jews in this story is also fascinating--in each case they are the pawns of history, as men of power exploit anti-Semitism for their own purposes, either persecuting or in one case protecting them, never out of moral conviction but rather to further other ends.
Our protagonists meet three different ends, and Pears leaves us to judge for ourselves who followed the right path. One achieves his goals--at great cost--and retires to live out his life. One recognizes he has been on the wrong path all along and dies a terrible death in a last grand gesture to redeem himself. One survives with his love, but also at great cost.
Each reader will reach their own conclusions--but Pears also invites us to look at how history judges these three. In the history books one man is a saint, one a traitor, one disappears without a trace. It's said history is written by the winners--if this is so what can we learn from it, other than how to "win?"
I hope one of my book clubs can be persuaded to read this--one could discuss it for hours!
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pears improves on his earlier work with exceptional results,
I started Iain Pears' previous novel "An Instance of the Fingerpost" with great enthusiasm, blown away by his excellent sense of characters and history. By the early chapters, I was impressed at how Pears wrote a historical novel that conveyed vivid pictures of pre-modern England without getting bogged down or forgetting that there was a story to tell. By using a narrative style that told (and retold) a similar story through 3 characters, "Fingerpost," while trying to be innovative and inventive, ended up seeming redundant. A great glimpse of history, but one that took endurance to get through.
In "Scipio," Pears adopts a similar style of recounting events through the interwoven stories of 3 men. But here his trio of protagonists are of vastly different eras and experiences, making his cast more engaging. He also takes a non-linear tact, which helps make "Scipio" a real page turner. Interestingly, Pears outlines his main characters' deaths relatively early in the book. He also makes insightful comments about the ways that past events follow similar patterns over the course of time. "Scipio" is a valuable novel that should find a wide following.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A philosophical and historical masterwork!,
This review is from: The Dream of Scipio (Paperback)
I wasn't impressed with Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost, but I was told that this novel was an outstanding work of fiction. I am glad I gave it a whirl. This is a wonderful and true work of historical fiction. What makes this novel all the more memorable to me is that it is philosophical as well. The Dream of Scipio is an extremely well done and beautiful novel -- a challenging read involving three different characters at three different points in history. All come from the same French town, and each one affects the subsequent character. The story flows in a marvelous and steady motion, moving seamlessly from one historical period to the next. The three main characters are concerned, perhaps obsessed, with making morally correct decisions in a seemingly immoral world. Each lives in a time when tremendous calamities of historical consequences were occurring around them and throughout the whole of Europe. The decisions they make are not easy and the latter characters look for guidance to the writing of the Manlius, the first character in the novel. The Dream of Scipio is a highly interesting read, one that enthralled me from beginning to end. I love historical fiction and this novel is one of the best I've read. If you are not afraid of a philosophical and somewhat complex novel, pick this one up. You won't regret it.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Unforgettable Achievement,
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The novel begins, "Julien Barneuve died at 3:28 on the afternoon of August 18, 1943. It had taken him twenty-three minutes exactly to die..." From that moment on I found this one of the unforgettable novels I've ever read. I, too, delighted in "An Instance of the Fingerpost," although its mysteries were, I thought, resolved in a manner I could not believe. This novel is yet more sophisticated and with a surer touch as well as a darker vision. It is certainly not for those who want a fun beach read but the thoughtful reader will delight in it.
Earlier reviewers have noted the strengths of the novel, its three-level plot structure in which what Manlius Hippomanes and his inspiration, Sophia, do in Gaul as the Roman Empire dies around them is inextricably linked to a romantic medieval poet in Avignon and a cynical intellectual in post-WWI France who is coaxed into joining the Vichy regime. All three stories are tied by strong threads of continuity - the most important being a work by Manlius in which he attempts philosophically to resolve questions between neoplatonic vision and Christian dogma. 800 years later, Olivier de Noyen will try to understand it, as will the modern character, Julien, as war breaks out with Germany in 1940. It may sound dull - trust me, it is not. What I know about neoplatonic thought could be written on a finger's end. What is required is journey for the reader into ancient and modern life when one way of life is dying about you and a violent new one is being born, and the kinds of choices you make to survive. All this is exemplified by very real characters confronting real crises and what happens to them - and those around them - because of the kinds of decisions they make. I can't give away the ending but I found the last paragraph almost unbearably poignant and in tune with the symphony Pears' has composed.
Each character has a woman - perhaps the same woman, there are threads hinting this playfully - who inspire them to examine themselves. The novel's theme again and again, whether shown in art, literature or life, is the blind man, seeking . . . whether love, truth, or honor is deliberately ambiguous. Each man loses what he loves through the choice he makes.
I suspect this book might be harder for those who know or care nothing for history; if you knew nothing about the slow decline of the Roman Empire, the Black Death and early Christianity, or the collaborators in France who worked with the Nazis, you might lose a lot of the resonance Pears imparts. But many people loved "Fingerpost" without being experts in that arcane time either, and I like to think this book will be even more highly praised. Personally, I found it superior.
A wonderful experience.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Deeply Thought-Provoking,
This review is from: The Dream of Scipio (Paperback)
The jacket copy on this book is somewhat misleading, since it's billed as a mystery, which leads one to expect a more suspense-filled plot and also a story that moves quickly. This novel is neither, although it does contain a mystery of sorts. The question surrounds the identity and interactions between several historical figures in three different time periods -- the fall of Rome, the time of the Black Death in Europe and the fall of France during the Second World War.
The story contains many references to philosophy and religion, comparing characteristics among the three time periods and the people who lived through each. A key idea of the book is the question of personal choice during times of trouble. Does one hold fast to absolute principles, risking death and destruction, or is it better to go along with the opposition in hopes of ameliorating its brutality?
In the three cases described in the novel, the opposition is represented by the barbarians who sacked Rome, the oppressive Church of the Dark Ages and the invading Germans of 1942. In the first two instances, the heroes allow themselves to be co-opted by a barbarian king and the Church hierarchy, with mixed results. In the final instance, the hero teeters on the brink of choice, finally deciding to stick with his principles, even though in doing so he, his friends and his way of life are certain to be destroyed.
The book is exceptionally thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I read, going back and re-reading sections, and pondering what I might do in a similar situation. A bonus was that I learned a good deal about the Greek philosophers and about what life was like during times and in places that I don't know much about. This is a very good read that will challenge most readers and, in return, pay off in ways that the usual page-turners do not.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Shakespeare of historical fiction,
For those of you who know Iain Pears from his art mysteries, this book will be a monumental surprise in terms of its richness and intellectual weight. For those who enjoy Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davies this takes historical fiction to the next level of intricacy and introspection. The book weaves three stories that interact with each other through the thin parchment of time. Each is a story of virtue, civilization and principle struggling to find a foothold in a time of panic, dispiritedness and decay. Manlius, Olivier and Julien live in Provence separated by hundreds of years, and yet face the same questions about the role of virtue and civilization at a time when life is so rudimentary that these seem quaint notions. They face the choice of fighting for a principle that is hopelessly lost, or seeming virtuous in salvaging some "middle ground". Each leaves enough of a mark for the one that follows to observe him thru the fractured mirrors of hearsay and old manuscripts copied many times over.
I won't spoil the punch line by describing the characters any further, but it surprised me that the character I admired thru most of the book wasn't whose inner virtue shone in the end. But like any good book, this book is a mirror in which you can look at yourself, and who you like in it says as much about you as anything else.
Great book to hole up with for the Christmas vacation.
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The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears (Paperback - June 3, 2003)