Observer Review: The Dream Of Scipio By Iain Pears Essay, Research Paper
Lost in FranceThe Dream of ScipioIain PearsJonathan Cape ?17.99, pp392Golden age crime writers, like bigamists, enjoyed the freedom granted by a double identity. Oxford don J.I.M. Stewart published racy thrillers as Michael Innes; poet C. Day Lewis masqueraded as Nicholas Blake; and ‘Edmund Crispin’ was in fact the composer Bruce Montgomery.Iain Pears, like Stewart, is a respected academic, the author of a monograph on eighteenth-century collectors, but he’s not too proud to publish crime novels under his own name. His Italian art-world romps have titles like The Bernini Bust and The Raphael Affair: they’re light and ingenious and they sell well; and their success has encouraged him to move ever further into the mainstream.The bestselling An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997) marked a new departure for Pears; far more structurally and stylistically ambitious than the Italian series, it suggested that he was developing his voice as a serious novelist, as did his move from HarperCollins to Cape. But, on the evidence of the new novel, it looks as if An Instance of the Fingerpost may have been a one-off.The action – what there is of it – in The Dream of Scipio moves between 5th-, 14th- and 20th-century Avignon. Our scholar-hero is Julien Barneuve, a 1930s French intellectual whose failure to intervene decisively in public life leads him into the service of the Vichy regime.Before the war, he had unearthed an obscure Provençal poet of the fourteenth century, Olivier de Noyen, and a philosophical manuscript, ‘The Dream of Scipio’, written by a fifth-century Roman aristocrat, Manlius Hippomanes. This mysterious text links the three men, as does their love for a woman – Sophia, Rebecca, Julia – a kind of Universal Muse who wafts inspiringly through time.No single story provides the frame for the others, and we jump between historical moments every other paragraph. There’s a lot of movement, but very little progression. The breathless thrills of An Instance of the Fingerpost have been exchanged for a lengthy meditation on cultural history, with characters as pegs for thoughts. The plot has more in common with an academic treatise than with a thriller. In fact, there are more exciting PhD theses.There are many beautiful passages, certainly, but the central aspects of the book would have been better treated in a study of real writers than in this oddly fictionalised form of scholarship.Olivier is purportedly a great poet, but the only fragments of his verse we encounter are ‘(in the wholly inadequate 1865 translation of Frédéric Mistral) “My eyes have stabbed my soul…” ‘ This is more than inadequate, it is an appalling cop-out. Manlius’s classical wit is marked with a similar ellipsis: ‘They swapped aphorisms about water, played with quotations from Pliny about his garden…’ What aphorisms? Which quotations? And Julien’s great intellect is evident only in his knowing silences.It’s a commonplace (at least in academia) that literary history is a kind of detective work, but only an academic as brilliant as Nabokov could possibly construct a compelling novel around a dreadful poet. And he did that (in Pale Fire) by embedding a powerful mystery at the heart of the narrative. Pears seems to think that literary fiction is simply crime-writing without the plot. This ambitious novel is so busy chasing its tail that it forgets to go forwards.