Tuesday, May 06, 2014

An instance of magic

This is the best contemporary novel I've read. If I wasn't so leery of sweeping statements, I'd be tempted to say the best, period.

Iain Pears began his writing career with a number of high-class mystery novels set in the art world. Presumably he got tired of being a semi-obscure penny-a-liner and decided he would plant his flag in the land of Serious Literature. In 1999 he opened the bidding with An Instance of the Fingerpost, also a kind of mystery but a very different kind, set in 17th century Oxford with an occult tinge.

Fingerpost was impressive, with a splendidly amazing surprise toward the end, but I thought it only partially satisfying. It suffered from the look-at-me-I'm-a-genius syndrome: told from too many points of view, a surfeit of characters (practically every famous name at the time and place shoe-horned in), too long. But it worked for his authorial career, making him famous among the dwindling ranks of recreational readers.

The Dream of Scipio is the follow-up, and while it doesn't seem to have made as much of a splash as Fingerpost, it's a better novel -- a great one. Pears apparently felt he no longer had anything to prove, and that was all to the good. Scipio is leaner, the historical details all relevant, the characters vivid, and the philosophical undertones engaging.

The main personae inhabit southern France, Avignon and nearby -- but widely separated in time, albeit each in a grim, threatening era. Narration switches back and forth among the eras. Devices like this can be pretentious if carried out unskillfully, but Pears creates a metaphysical thread running through the novel but doesn't slap you around with parallels. Thankfully, while each character and period is precisely drawn, there's enough ambiguity that the reader is invited, nay, required to ponder the connections and their deeper meanings. 

The first story takes place in the 5th century, when the power and laws of Rome are vestigial but pagan customs and philosophy retain influence. Manlius, a rich landowner, reluctantly agrees to become a Christian bishop because he recognizes that the Church has become the de facto authority holding together what tenuous civilization remains and the only bulwark against the tribes moving in from beyond the frontier.

Next is the 14th century when Avignon houses the Pope ... and the Plague delivers a more horrifying invasion than any army could. Olivier de Noyen, a poor scholar who manages to obtain the Pope's favor and becomes a member of his entourage, discovers a neo-Platonic manuscript titled The Dream of Scipio, written nearly a millennium earlier by Manlius.

The final episodes are set in the 1930s, centering on Julien Barneuve, an art historian with access to the archives of the Pope, who has long been restored to the Vatican. Barneuve, too, rediscovers the Dream as Europe stumbles toward another slaughterfest.

Each of the men has a woman counterpart who is influential, inspiring, frustrating, and an object of love. For Manlius, it is Sophia (yes, Wisdom), who if I recall right absorbed Greek philosophy at Alexandria where it long remained culturally significant and an irritant to the Church. Olivier finds his desire focused on Rebecca, who had been rescued from destitution by, and became the willing servant of, an aged and scholarly man, also a Jew. Julien has a long and complex relationship with Julia, a Jewish artist and wanderer who -- like all the other characters, come to think of it -- cannot quite find her place in the world. Needless to say, the 14th century and the '30s were especially dangerous for the Jewish women.

I fear I have given a clumsy summation of the story, and am at a loss trying to describe the spirit and style of The Dream of Scipio. Its events are described realistically, sometimes uncomfortably so; but Pears keeps the action from cascading over the rim into lurid drama.

Still, the book is much more, a meditation on the aspects of life whose essence goes beyond history: beauty, the relationship of this world to the invisible one, the nature of truth, good and evil. Regardless of their individual beliefs, intelligent readers should find the questions raised and the answers sometimes proposed fascinating.

Recommended unreservedly. Scipio is tough and magical. Even the American paperback edition's cover art (see above) beautifully, faithfully captures the novel's mood.


Stogie said...

Great review! I will consider buying the book based on your recommendation -- though I rarely read fiction.

YIH said...

Something to think about: Chinese police in Paris, France to protect Chinese tourists.
Do they give a damn about the native French? No, of course not.
The Chinese think: Well, the French will not keep Chinese 'secure' against 'counter-revolutionary' ideas nor will they keep them 'secure' against 'street crime', so we have to bribe the French officials to allow us to do so.
It seems they did.

zazie said...

This is really a great book. As one member of a dwindling civilisation I too wonder about one of the first issues described in the book : what, just what, is one to do in order to give us a chance against barbarity?