Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Book Review: The Dream of Scipio

I mostly read for escapist reasons at this point in my life, so I sometimes don't get all the way through more low-key novels. In the summer of 2003, while I was living in New York, I had an Iain Pears-a-thon and checked out The Dream of Scipio, An Instance of the Fingerpost, and a handful of his art history mysteries. The latter fit the escapist-fun criteria to a tee, and Fingerpost is like The Name of the Rose, but in 17th c. England. Scipio, however, lacks a mystery plot and is instead more of an extended meditation on philosophy and ethical decision-making. I only now got around to finishing it.

The book is quiet, but eventually builds a fair amount of suspense; the worlds of each character are cruel, and deadly consequences loom as each character must decide how to act. Each ethical problem in some way involves the treatment of Europe's Jewish population, which I confess to finding a bit hackneyed. Need an easy moral dilemma? How about a Holocaust storyline? Lazy, that.

Of the three figures we follow (Manlius, the author of the Neoplatonic treatise from which the book takes its name; Olivier, a 14th c. Christian poet; and Julien, a French scholar in the early 20th c.), Manlius gets the shortest shrift, which is a pity, considering that the ideas he propagates and acts upon directly produce the events which complicate the lives of the other two characters.

The experience of reading Scipio was in some ways frustrating; Manlius is distant, Olivier somewhat dumb, and Julien almost always passive. The only unambiguously sympathetic characters are peripheral females who motivate the leads but who do not take center stage. These women are fully-fleshed out, which makes their sidelined status more irritating. Could we not have had a similarly symmetrical tripartite narrative with these figures placed centrally? Perhaps. Perhaps not. In its present form, Scipio is a worthwhile read, but not particularly pleasurable. Recommended for people who think Neoplatonism sounds like a good hook for a novel.
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