Iain Pears is everybody's fantasy of the ultimate history
teacher. (At least for people whose fantasies extend to history
teachers.) His popular mysteries, so intricately woven from the
threads of the past, have given the genre more class and
intellectual depth than it's ever had. His latest novel, "The Dream
of Scipio," is another category-buster, a work of such philosophical
and cultural complexity that its greatest mystery is "How can Pears
know so much?"
Pears's canvas has never been larger (Western culture), or his
concerns more profound (What is civilization?). Summarizing this
complicated story risks intimidating readers away, but - while it's
good to be prepared for some work - this is another wildly
He follows three historians in Provence at three moments when
Western civilization seemed ready to shatter:
* Manlius Hippomanes, the Bishop of Vaison, who struggles to slow
the fall of Rome in the 5th century.
* Olivier de Noyen, a poet and collector of manuscripts, who
serves Cardinal Ceccani during the Black Death of the 14th century.
* Julien Barneuve, a classical historian, who reluctantly works
for the French government after the Nazi occupation in the 20th
Pears has constructed a kind of literary Rubik's Cube, spinning
these stories through each other in short chapters that produce
fascinating patterns and parallels. All three men are captivated by
the Neoplatonic philosophy of Sophia, a stoic Greek woman whose
father was literally killed by the fall of Rome, when the ceiling of
his classroom collapsed.
At a time when classical philosophy is fighting weakly against
the onslaught of Christian dogma, Sophia serves as Manlius's mentor.
Even after his conversion, a merely political declaration, Sophia
struggles to instill the logic of her ancient virtue. As a show of
reverence, Manlius composes a dialogue called "The Dream of Scipio."
He hopes to demonstrate to his teacher how well he understands her
radical notion that the soul is a reflection of the divine, trapped
in a material body, eager to reunite after a journey of
One of the dazzling pleasures of this novel is Pears's ability to
follow the bumblebee flight of an idea through the ravages of time.
At his death, Bishop Manlius's scandalous library is burned to
protect his reputation, but "The Dream of Scipio" survives, mistaken
for a Christian text. It's transferred to a church archive, where it
sits for 300 years until that library, too, burns. But before that
disaster, "The Dream" is transcribed, badly, so that Olivier de
Noyen, a clerical courtier in the 14th century, can make a copy of
it that ends up in the Vatican library, where Julien Barneuve
translates it again as the Nazis destroy Europe.
How each of these men uses the wisdom of Sophia to respond to
their different, though equally terrifying, circumstances provides
the intellectual axis that runs through the novel. …