(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio is a novel about the movement of time. In one unalterable moment, a great civilization can cease to be great or an individual seemingly destined for greatness may discover only obscurity and possibly oblivion. Pears’s book borrows the famous title of the disquisition on the nature of fame that appears in Cicero’s De republica (51 b.c.e.; On the State, 1817), the Roman rhetorician’s own title benignly pilfered from the Greek philosopher Plato. The fourteenth century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer adapted Plato’s format to his own discourse on the nature of worldly recognition.

In Cicero’s version, Scipio Africanus, conqueror of what would come to be known as Roman proconsular Africa, appears as a spirit to his nephew Africanus Iunior to warn him of the nature of worldly vanity and the transience of power. Chaucer’s version retains Africanus but substitutes Geoffrey himself for Iunior. Being an underappreciated courtier was something that Chaucer well understood.

Pears’s use of this motif is somewhat more complex. He takes what he considers to be three critical periods in the history of the world—late classical antiquity, the fourteenth century, and the middle years of World War II—and views them in the context of the region surrounding the city of Avignon, France. His link for these three periods is a twentieth century classical scholar and academic named Julien Barneuve. It is Barneuve’s interest in late Roman history that leads him to a local bishop of the fourth century to whom he gives the Hellenized name Manlius Hippomanes. Barneuve discovers further references to Manlius in the fourteenth century writings of the poet Olivier de Noyen. This leads him to untangling references to Olivier’s beloved, Rebecca, in one of the poet’s courtly love poems.

Barneuve soon discovers that the particulars of his own life and those of his two historical predecessors have uncanny resemblances. The most obvious affinity is that all have similar geographic origins within the region of southern France that from the medieval period was called Avignon. In the case of each, there is also a single wise woman who guides and inspires him. There is also a presumed male friend or mentor who disappoints him and fatally influences a tragic outcome.

In Barneuve’s case, the betrayal comes from both sides of the political crisis that follows the German occupation of France. His two friends, Bernard Marchand and Marcel Laplace, follow opposite courses in the struggle between the Free and the Vichy French. Marchand takes what on the face of things appears to be the more idealistic path, to join the Resistance. Laplace, on the other hand, sincerely believes that he can do more good by becoming a Vichy administrator in the Avignon region. He ultimately convinces Barneuve to assist him as a minor functionary of the provincial administration. Barneuve’s role, combined with the antithetical positions of his two friends, ironically leads to the imprisonment and death of his beloved Julia and his own personal holocaust, the extraordinary narrative with which the novel begins.

At the heart of Pears’s aesthetics is the fact that the narrator and his two scholarly preoccupations, Manlius and Olivier, all live at critical periods in the history of the world, moments when civilization changes utterly. The irony is that although the political externals change irrevocably, the lives of those who live within those periods retain almost exactly parallel needs. All require trust and love and at the very least convince themselves that they care for truth. Pears skillfully allows his readers to decide whether the motives of Manlius are as pure as those of Olivier or Barneuve. One suspects that the conclusions reached depend upon preference for a philosophic or a pragmatic standard of goodness.

Manlius, for example, is an aristocrat living in a region of Gaul that Rome can no longer adequately defend. Are the assurances that he receives of Roman assistance...

(The entire section is 1648 words.)