Civilization in twilight

Three moments when the flame was almost extinguished

By

Iain Pears is everybody's fantasy of the ultimate history teacher. (At least for people whose fantasies extend to history teachers.) His popular mysteries, so intricately woven from the threads of the past, have given the genre more class and intellectual depth than it's ever had. His latest novel, "The Dream of Scipio," is another category-buster, a work of such philosophical and cultural complexity that its greatest mystery is "How can Pears know so much?"

Pears's canvas has never been larger (Western culture), or his concerns more profound (What is civilization?). Summarizing this complicated story risks intimidating readers away, but – while it's good to be prepared for some work – this is another wildly entertaining novel.

He follows three historians in Provence at three moments when Western civilization seemed ready to shatter:

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• Manlius Hippomanes, the Bishop of Vaison, who struggles to slow the fall of Rome in the 5th century.

• Olivier de Noyen, a poet and collector of manuscripts, who serves Cardinal Ceccani during the Black Death of the 14th century.

• Julien Barneuve, a classical historian, who reluctantly works for the French government after the Nazi occupation in the 20th century.

Pears has constructed a kind of literary Rubik's Cube, spinning these stories through each other in short chapters that produce fascinating patterns and parallels. All three men are captivated by the Neoplatonic philosophy of Sophia, a stoic Greek woman whose father was literally killed by the fall of Rome, when the ceiling of his classroom collapsed.

At a time when classical philosophy is fighting weakly against the onslaught of Christian dogma, Sophia serves as Manlius's mentor. Even after his conversion, a merely political declaration, Sophia struggles to instill the logic of her ancient virtue. As a show of reverence, Manlius composes a dialogue called "The Dream of Scipio." He hopes to demonstrate to his teacher how well he understands her radical notion that the soul is a reflection of the divine, trapped in a material body, eager to reunite after a journey of understanding.

One of the dazzling pleasures of this novel is Pears's ability to follow the bumblebee flight of an idea through the ravages of time. At his death, Bishop Manlius's scandalous library is burned to protect his reputation, but "The Dream of Scipio" survives, mistaken for a Christian text. It's transferred to a church archive, where it sits for 300 years until that library, too, burns. But before that disaster, "The Dream" is transcribed, badly, so that Olivier de Noyen, a clerical courtier in the 14th century, can make a copy of it that ends up in the Vatican library, where Julien Barneuve translates it again as the Nazis destroy Europe.

How each of these men uses the wisdom of Sophia to respond to their different, though equally terrifying, circumstances provides the intellectual axis that runs through the novel. But each story also revolves around a delicate romance rendered impossible by the crisis of the day. Sophia, for instance, is too removed from this world to give her heart to Manlius, and in any case, his political expediency repels her. In the 14th century, as the plague dissolves bodies and morals, Olivier falls in love with a servant girl, and in the 20th century, Julien is captivated by a Jewish painter. Pears handles these relationships – like everything in this novel – with extraordinary delicacy, capturing the full tragedy and beauty of thwarted affection.

Each era is unimaginably different from the other, and yet in each, virtue is tested in remarkably similar ways. Again and again, anti-Semitism serves as the dry timber for a resulting holocaust. Manlius, Olivier, and Julien, so unlike in position and knowledge, must choose between their responsibility to those around them and their duty to those who will come after them – even in the twilight of civilization, when it seems likely that no one will come after them at all.

As the barbarians threaten to invade, Manlius reassures a nervous friend: "We are the civilized world, you and I. As long as we continue to stroll through my garden arm in arm, civilization will continue." But 1500 years later, as German tanks grind toward the same spot, Julien takes a much more proactive view: "Civilization needs to be nurtured, cosseted, and protected from those who would damage it.... It needs constant attention."

By the end of this remarkable novel, all three men find the problem of preserving the best of their worlds vastly more complicated than they ever imagined. What keeps this cerebral story from pixelating into abstraction, though, is Pears's bifocal vision, an ability to perceive the precise details of ordinary life and the broad sweep of history with equal clarity.

There's something sad and fascinating about his God's-eye view of how documents survive or don't, how history is recorded or lost, how truth is preserved or perverted. Each of these three story lines is so compelling that every break inspires a little regret that you have to leave one and a little thrill that you get to rejoin another.

Civilization survives or revives in every case, but the hideous cost detailed here leaves little solace. This is a novel for our time about all time. Those who ignore Iain Pears are doomed to repeat the past.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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