He imagined civilisation as something lying outside the individual, a spirit which only required a little care to survive. It consoled him; as it had sprung up again after the Romans, and again after the Black Death, so it would now, after the darkness to come. His great book on the history of Neoplatonism thus became his plaintive song in the falling light, and gradually he worked in more and more commentary on Manlius' manuscript to illustrate the points he was making. He, too, expected defeat.
I loved the richness of historical detail and the dark-as-pitch sensibility of An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997), Iain Pears' tale of empiricism and murder in 17th-century Oxford. I'd been looking forward to reading its ambitious, multi-stranded follow-up, The Dream of Scipio (2002), for some time. The end of the western Roman empire, the Black Death, and the Nazi occupation of France, all tied together with a long-lost neo-Platonic treatise: a heady brew indeed, but one that, I'm sorry to say, ultimately proved to be somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
Three separate historical tales are interwoven in The Dream of Scipio. Each is told in the same dry, detached omniscient voice, to which the often fragmentary narrative structure makes an interesting counterpoint. All three threads are introduced through a series of out-of-order snippets - we learn how each of the three main characters meets their end before we know much else about them, for example - and the spotlight skips between the stories with an abandon that borders, at times, on free association. The goal, of course - in keeping with the neo-Platonic concepts that the novel repeatedly uses as a touchstone - is to find echoes and contrasts across the centuries.
The story with the earliest setting is the most interesting by some way, at least to this reader. From a once-plush villa in the south of late antique Gaul (a territory covering present-day France and parts of its eastern neighbours), Manlius Hippomanes can only watch as the Goths close in, the imperial machinery in Rome fails to defend the citizens of its provinces, and his social circle shrinks, both numerically and intellectually, beneath the twin forces of elite flight and the increasing unfashionableness of pagan philosophy in the face of Christianity's ascendancy. But unlike most of those around him, he recognises that fight and flight are not the only - or even the best - options open to him:
"He says that a few thousand troops now could make all the difference."
"He said that six months ago as well. It made no difference at all. Has something now changed?"
Felix shrugged his shoulders wearily. "We must try, surely? The whole of the civilised world is at stake."
Manlius smiled. "We are the civilized world, you and I," he said. "A few dozen people, with our learning."
In his ensuing efforts to find a modus operandi between Roman culture and 'barbarian' incomers - to preserve at least some of what he values, rather than gamble and most likely lose it all - Manlius is essentially an analogue for Sidonius Apollinaris, many of whose letters survive from the period. Like Manlius, Sidonius was an old guard of the Roman intellectual and political elite who, not without some agonising, saw which way the wind was blowing in the later fifth century, and opted to sail with it. Manlius manoeuvres his way into a bishopric, and uses this position of ecclesiastical authority to negotiate a space for Romanitas in the new world order.
Manlius' world is very well drawn, with plenty of incidental cultural and material details - the books he has access to, the meals made from the dwindling agricultural yield of his estate, the networks of patronage - forming a backdrop to the central events and conversations. Some of these are helpfully summarised for us by Julien Barneuve, protagonist of the Second World War strand, when he explains, to an unsuspecting bystander, the broader significance of the remains of a mosaic sponsored by Manlius:
"The whole place was crumbling. The fields were overgrown as there were no workers. The great estates were breaking up. Trade collapsed, the cities too. In that little patch you can see the decline of an entire civilisation, the greatest the world has ever known. I see you were cross when I pointed that hole out to you. It makes me angry, too."
"Because civilisation depends on continually making the effort, on never giving in. It needs to be cared for by men of goodwill, protected from the dark. These people gave in. They stopped caring. And because they did, the land fell under the darkness of a barbarism which lasted for hundreds of years."
Unsurprisingly, the question of what constitutes civilisation, and what can and should be done to save it, runs through all three stories. For Manlius in late antiquity, the threat is twofold: the rise of the Church and the Germanic invasions (in the form of the Visigoths, who were at this time adherents of Arian Christianity - a heresy, in the eyes of the Roman church, although this is not an issue that gets explored in the novel). Julien’s France faces another, rather more implacable, German force in the shape of the Wehrmacht, and like Manlius there are several courses open to him when it comes to greeting the barbarians, all of which play out in the lives of three characters within his story: "The resister, the collaborator and the vacillating intellectual". In the fourteenth century, meanwhile, naïve young would-be scholar Olivier de Noyen finds Cicero a considerable distraction - at least for a time - from the horrors of the Black Death:
The beauty of the prose, the noble elegance of the ideas, the lofty majesty of the conceptions were like draughts of strong wine, and when he first discovered, then read, the one manuscript Ceccani possessed, he wept with joy for a full twenty minutes before immediately starting again.
Yes, intentionally or not, Pears really does seem to be equating the Christianisation of Europe with Blitzkrieg. Since I’m of school that sees Late Antiquity as different from, rather than automatically inferior to, the Classical world, this made me impatient: life was undoubtedly nasty, brutish, and short of good reading material in the early Middle Ages, but it was hardly Auschwitz. And, as Peter Brown and others have spilt quite some ink discussing, much of Christianity’s patriarchal excess comes from the Roman cultural milieu in which in developed. But anyway: the point is, while the paralleling is often very clever and illuminating, the narrative becomes bogged down in its thematic musings, leaving us to make only rather ponderous progress through the stories.
Never fear, though, because the appeal of civilisation gets reinforced, in all three plot threads, by a trio of women on pedestals, the threats to whose innocent allure underline What Is At Stake. You know the type; indeed, Pears himself lampoons the attitude at one point:
Dante's Beatrice was scarcely a real person by the time he had reduced her to verse; Petrarch's Laura might not have existed at all except in his imagination. Both loved their lovers more after they were dead, and could not disturb their imaginations with the onset of wrinkles or the annoyance of opinions independently expressed.
Alas, if only the appealing snark of this passage translated into Pears' treatment of his own female characters. Julien falls obsessively for Jewish artist Julia, who seems promisingly bohemian and vaguely edgy at first, but who is all too soon consigned to being little more than the captive object of Julien's devotion, trying to conceal her Jewish identity from Nazi spies in the village close to where Manlius once lived. Indeed, throughout the novel, Jews are firmly cast in the tragic and mostly faceless victim mould, whose primary role is to be menaced by the various barbarians, so that our heroic protectors of civilisation can get in some properly poignant angst at their inability to prevent them from dying (off-stage). Or, in the case of Manlius, be pressured into killing them himself to show his outward allegiance to the new barbarism - another way in which the late antique storyline is both grimmer and more compelling.
Olivier, meanwhile, has saintly, soft-spoken cypher Rebecca to moon over. In one of the novel's many exercises in parallel and contrast, where Julia seeks to hide her Jewishness, Rebecca - a servant in a Jewish household - allows herself to be perceived as a Jew, although she isn't. This is because, even at a time when Jews are being scapegoated for the plague, the truth - that she is one of the few surviving Cathars - is more dangerous to her. Olivier's solipsistic, bigoted reaction to the thought that she is Jewish is clearly meant to be ridiculous:
Now he knew for certain who she was and what she was - a servant, a Jew - he did not want anything to do with her. He was furious with her, indeed. For nearly two years now he had held this woman in his imagining, written his poetry, turned her into his muse. Every day in his mind he laid flowers at her feet, kissed her hand, more than that. And then he discovers her. And she is a Jew, a servant. He hated her, never wanted to see her again, of course not. The feelings she had aroused in him disgusted him.
But I am less certain that Olivier's desire for a mute muse is undermined quite so strongly as are his snobbery and anti-semitism, since Olivier's extreme idealisation of Rebecca only returns when he learns the truth, and - most importantly - we hear so little from Rebecca herself in the narrative.
The only one of these women who goes some way towards "disturbing [...] imagination with the annoyance of opinions independently expressed" is Sophia, Manlius' talisman and tutor in neo-Platonic thought. She is the second speaker here, trying - politely - to head off Manlius' obvious affection for her:
"You say that, at its best, the physical craving is a reflection of the desire of the soul to reunite with the ultimate beauty, with God. And can only be justified as such."
"But I said it was only a reflection. Not a reality. As real as a glass reflected in a pond."
"But a reflection of water in a mirror can make you thirsty."
"That is true. And that is what you should work towards. You should bend your mouth to the imaginary glass and try to drink."
"I know all this. I have learnt well. And yet I cannot stop."
There is plenty of unfulfilled desire lurking here, and despite the narrator's perceptive assertion that
this great passion was the more fulfilling for each because of its abstract nature, that for Manlius sex was something all men had with their servants when necessary, that for Sophia it was a reminder of a position in the world which bred resentment rather than release
- in practice it does seem as if Sophia is the one who is more restrained and self-protective, viewing her exchanges with Manlius through rather less rose-tinted spectacles than he does. She is quite forthright (by the standards of the novel, and the time she's in) and unabashedly intellectual, but - as with the other two women - her role is to be a symbol of what the male protagonist of her storyline is fighting for, and to spend most of her time thinking about said man. Thus, when we're let into her thoughts, much of what she does is interpret Manlius' actions and attitudes for us, in line with the philosophical lens through which both she and the novel see the world:
She suspected that the Manlius who retired to his estates, and the Manlius who emerged to impose himself on the province were in opposition to each other, not two facets of a harmonious soul. But she ignored this, because she needed to.
It is not hard to guess her trajectory in this post-Roman world; Pears wants her to be Hypatia so badly it hurts, although ultimately her story gains resonance from the real-world example rather than mapping onto it exactly.
The novel does, ultimately, complicate the matter of civilisation vs. the barbarians still further; as is signalled in Sophia's repeated imagery of reflection and reality, and of divided souls, Pears increasingly emphasises the ways in which civilisation and barbarism are two sides of the same coin, and the ways in which the former can so easily slip into the latter, even with the very best of intentions:
"Any amount of disgrace or infamy can be incurred," Manlius quoted, "if it is in the cause of virtue."
Had Julien been less influenced by his own predicament, then he might have looked harder and guessed the poet's motivations earlier than he did. He might also have considered the possibility that Manlius, in writing these words, was passing a verdict on his own acts, rather than providing a philosophical basis for them.
Lots of interesting potential, then, but the imbalance between theme, plot and character here too often results in a damagingly slow pace - and the detached narrative voice added to the oh-so-familiar trope of pedestal women in peril rather detracted from the emotional impact I'd expected to find in three tales of three such weighty historical periods. Intellectually interesting, but never really involving.