The end of the world

I've been a big fan of Iain Pears' writing ever since reading his Art-history-mysteries series. Light, frothy, charming, with a cracking crime novel at their centre, they are perfect reading for a lazy Sunday, or for when you don't want your brain to have to work too hard. After seven thrillers, and the well-reviewed An instance of the fingerpost (previously reviewed on here), Pears turned to literary fiction. In general, although enjoyable, I've been less convinced by his literary fiction, but his first novel in this genre The Dream Of Scipio remains one of my favourite books.

It's difficult to analyse why I'm so drawn to it, or why I love it so much, but it just moves me every time I read it. Part-philosophy, part-novel it's the story of three different men, and the women that inspire them, set at three stages of history. The novel is set in and around Avignon at turning-points in its history - the fall of the Roman Empire, the Avignon Papacy and the Black Death, and the Nazi occupation of Vichy France. In each case the heroes are presented with a question - what constitutes civilisation, and what should be done to save it?

In the case of Manlius Hippomanes and Julien Barneuve, the earliest and latest protagonists, their response is to collaborate with what can be seen as the opposing forces in order to preserve a version of civilisation. Olivier de Noyen, the young poet, at the centre of the middle strand, chooses a different path - Olivier, who by some reckoning is the least cultured, although the most thirsty for genuine knowledge of the three heroes, instead of collaborating sacrifices himself for a friend. The implication is that it is through friendship and the commerce of daily life that civilisation is maintained, not through attempting to maintain what is merely the veneer of civilisation.

It's the sort of novel which presents questions at every turn of the page - not just - is what the hero does morally correct? but also, what would I do, how would I cope in such a situation? Beautifully written, intensely moving, by turns lyrical and with the pace of a thriller, this is a wonderful book. And one to enjoy again, and again, and again.


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