Three stories make up Iain Pears' novel The Dream of Scipio. Separated by 1,500 years, they are united by the single eponymous manuscript — not Cicero's famous piece but a later interpretation — and by a moral dilemma – what can one person do in the midst of a collapsing society? They also all take place on the much-fought-over soil of southern France.
The author of the manuscript is the first of these characters: Manlius Hippomanus, a neo-Platonic scholar made non-believing bishop in 5th-century Gaul, watching, at first with wry detachment, the collapse around him of the Roman civilisation. The second is Olivier de Noyen, the half-educated, half-barbarian scholar of the 14th century, who relocates the manuscript but finds it little help in his own struggles within the court of the corrupt papacy at Avignon. His copy is found by a 20th-century scholar, Julien, trapped like his predecessors in web of friendship, obligation and good intentions, he in the difficult moral territory of Nazi-controlled France.
It is the last of those stories that I found the least satisfying – this is well-explored territory to the point of cliche and the love story – of his romance with the (of course) Jewish Julia is far more central and the collapse of "civilisation" is here something rather less than that; only the collapse of a nation state that we know was resurrected. The worlds and times of Manlius and Olivier are by contrast far less known, and far more interesting; in neither case is romance a central part of the story.
As a whole, the novel is something less than its parts – a little too neat, the juxtapositions a little too obvious. But some of those parts are satisfying indeed, particularly the creations of little set-pieces, such as the sad procession of quasi-scholars that Manlius assembles to march to court the Burgundian barbarian, in the hope that he can be persuaded to hold of the advance of the worse, as the Roman sees it, Visigoths. The writing doesn't always match the quality of the research, but it is sufficiently satisfying to make these limitations less visible.
Pears is an 18th-century specialist, but you can see his love of research and knowledge, and the play of history. The tale of how Sophia, the pagan hermit-scholar, the last of her school, becomes woven into credulous early Christianity, to emerge as "St Sophia", is a historian's in-joke – a playful aside to the way our understanding of the past can only ever be partial and twisted.
When the novel was published in 2002 this was an enjoyable, indeed academic, tale. Yet just four years later, it looks considerably more timely. Given the threat we face from massive climate change we might not yet be in the position of any of these three men, but we might not be too far from it. I found myself imagining a fourth character in the tale, to the woven in from the 21st century.