Summary and book reviews of The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears

The Dream of Scipio

by Iain Pears

The Dream of Scipio
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 608 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2003, 416 pages

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Book Summary

Three narratives, set in the fifth, fourteenth, and twentieth centuries, all revolving around an ancient text and each with a love story at its center, are the elements of this ingenious novel, a follow-up to the bestselling, An Instance Of The Fingerpost.

"May well be the best historical mystery ever written," proclaimed The Sunday Boston Globe about Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost, while Booklist called its publication "a major literary event." Iain Pears's international bestseller was greeted with front-page reviews ("A crafty, utterly mesmerizing intellectual thriller"--The Washington Post Book World), named a New York Times Notable Book, and hailed as a Book to Remember by the New York Public Library. Now he returns with a greatly anticipated novel that is so brilliantly constructed, the author himself describes it as "a complexity."

The centuries are the fifth (the final days of the Roman Empire); the fourteenth (the years of the Black Death); and the twentieth (World War II). The setting for each is the same--Provence--and each has at its heart a love story. The narratives intertwine seamlessly, but what joins them thematically is an ancient text--"The Dream of Scipio"--a work of neo-Platonism that poses timeless philosophical questions. What is the obligation of the individual in a society under siege? What is the role of learning when civilization itself is threatened, whether by acts of man or nature? Does virtue lie more in engagement or in neutrality? "Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless," warns one of Pears's characters.

JULIAN BARNEUVE died at 3:28 on the afternoon of August 18, 1943. It had taken him twenty-three minutes exactly to die, the time between the fire starting and his last breath being sucked into his scorched lungs. He had not known his life was going to end that day, although he suspected it might happen. It was a brutal fire, which took hold swiftly and spread rapidly. From the moment it started Julien knew it would never be brought under control, that he would be consumed along with everything around. He didn't struggle, didn't try to escape; it could not be done. The fire ravaged the house--his mother's old house, where he had always felt most at ease, and where he always thought he had done his best work. He couldn't blame those nearby; any sort of rescue would have been foolhardy. Besides, he wanted no assistance and was content with the privacy they had granted him. Eight minutes between the fire starting and his collapsing into unconsciousness from the smoke. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Questions for Discussion
  1. In The Dream of Scipio, the stories of Manilus Hippomanes, Olivier de Noyen, and Julien Barneuve are linked through time by a philosophical text which suggests that "man is responsible for his own salvation, but through knowledge, not through deeds or faith." (p. 154). In other words, "that action is virtuous only if it reflects pure comprehension, and that virtue comes from the comprehension, not the action." (p. 381). In what ways is this tenet illustrated by the lives of the three main characters? In what ways is it challenged?
  2. "Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless." Discuss the trajectories of Manilus, Olivier and Julien in ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The Wall Street Journal

Complex, surprising and thought-provoking, a dream of a novel in more sense than one.

Library Journal - Barbara Hoffert

... the plotting is a marvel; the text moves smoothly among the three eras, drawing parallels that rarely seem forced. In the end, Pears asks good, cutting questions about the idea of civilization, showing that those who claim to preserve it are often its worst enemies.

Booklist

Pears' elaborate narrative triptych is dazzling for its structure, its complexity, and the richness of thought that gives it texture. But, finally, it is the passion of the love stories, undercutting bloodless philosophy while embracing the messiness of life, that lets the novel soar.

BookPage

An enormously accomplished work that stand as a learned novel of ideas, a meditation on history and a moving love story, all rolled into one volume.

Kirkus Reviews

This imposingly intricate novel begins slowly, makes heavy demands on the reader, and rises to a stunningly dramatic crescendo

Reader Reviews

jlp

A most unusual, and rather difficult book, but well worth the effort.

Pears, the author of An Instance of the Fingerpost, has written an historical novel, but one which takes place at three different times, with three different casts of characters: a ...   Read More

M.-R. Stringer

I'm no literary critic. I have a brother-in-law who is, and much published, and I know that what he does I can't possibly do.
But I *am* a reader, and an omnivorous one.
And I LOVE this book. I believe it's the best book I've ever read.
It's not the ...   Read More

coralie [14]

the dream of scipio
First impressions of this book include the complexity and intricacy of the plot- hard to keep up with but when one adapts oneself the the writing style, one finds an excellent account of history to revel and lose oneself in.

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