Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/02 (Day 2): Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies or Other?


One of my very first literary heroine was a little witch who manages to get the better of all the bigger, older witches after having been put down by them — the heroine of Otfried Preußler’s Little Witch.  (In fact, I loved that book enough to write my very first fan letter to the author about it … and I still love it enough to have put it on MR’s “1001” list.)

Ever since, I’ve come to be interested in them because women are almost always maligned as “witches” when people are afraid of them because they — the women in question — happen to be better at something (or are merely perceived as being better at something) than others.  That’s true for the poor ladies of centuries past who just happened to know their herbs a bit better than their neighbors, potentially even better than the local monastery’s herbalist, and who, after having helped countless community members with every ailment from headaches to abortion, were duly burned at the stake for their troubles the second they even inadvertently stepped on someone’s toes.   And it’s still true for women who happen to be better at their jobs nowadays than their (mostly, but not necessarily male) colleagues.  Other slurs plainly denigrate — “witch” (and to a certain extent also “bitch”) implies an irrational element of fear.  In light of that, the transformation of witches — or their perception — from the worst of evil bogey(wo)men conceivable to a positive identification with the “women’s power” movement is a thing to behold; not least in literature.

Which, incidentally, is just one more reason why I love Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.   And along the same lines, who wouldn’t love Mr. Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and her coven?

Though, speaking of Pratchett, he has also created just about the only werewolf I can get behind (and for similar reasons) — Angua of the Night Watch.

And, well, yeah, in terms of stories that were films before they were books, Ladyhawke of course … which isn’t so much a horror as a “doomed lovers” story, obviously.

Vampires, though?  Hmm.  I mean, on the one hand, give me Dracula rather than Edward Cullen any day of the week (and I’m saying that as a confirmed non-horror reader).  On the other hand, I read Anne Rice’s vampire novels — until she turned BBA, that is — for just about everything but the horror aspect; in fact, if she’d ramped up that one I’d have been gone in a flash.  (Incidentally, Rice once revealed in an interview that Lestat’s character was inspired by Rutger Hauer’s portrayal of Etienne de Navarre in Ladyhawke.  Go figure.)


And zombies?  Leave me alone and get the hell out of here.  They creep me out so badly I won’t even go anywhere near them in a supposedly humorous context (like the “white trash zombie” novels that are currently all the rage).



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16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 12 – Saturnalia


Tasks for Saturnalia: Wear a mask, take a picture and post it. Leave a small gift for someone you know anonymously – a small bit of chocolate or apple, a funny poem or joke. Tell us about it in a post. –OR– Tell us: If you could time-travel back to ancient Rome, where would you want to go and whom (both fictional and / or nonfictional persons) would you like to meet?

BrokenTune has already mentioned two people I really rather would have liked to meet as well, Cicero and Ovid.  In addition to the reasons she mentions, I probably also would have liked to pick Cicero’s brain on some of his trial strategies (in addition to being Rome’s most famous orator, he was also a first class lawyer, who scored some of the most celebrated victories in all of legal history) — and I’d have liked to ask Ovid how he ever came up with the madcap idea for his Metamorphoses.

In addition to these two, I’d have liked to:

Chat history, historical sources and research, and veracity and authentication, with Livy, Vergil, and Suetonius;

Find out what Plutarch would have thought about the fact that some of his writings provided the source material for the plays of a famous English playwright named William Shakespeare a millennium and a half after he himself had put quill to parchment (or to scroll, or whatever), and how, proud Greek that he was, he really felt about living under Roman rule;

 Ask Seneca about the experience of advising a lunatic like Nero (other than: scary as hell, that is), how many times he was close to committing suicide out of sheer desperation before Nero actually made him do so, what kept him going nevertheless — and how in the world he managed to write plays, and pretty impressive ones at that, in addition to what would seem to have been a full time political day job (also, whether he really was the author of the Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii, and how he came up with that one in the first place);

and find out from Marcus Aurelius how he implemented his philosophical maxims in his day to day duties as an emperor, particular in making unpleasant (or even harsh) decision in warfare and in the administration of justice.

As for fictional characters from that time, though not actually living in Rome, whom I’d like to meet — well, you know, there came a time in 50 A.D. when Gaul was entirely occupied by the Romans. Umm, entirely?  Well, no, not entirely … One small village of indomitable Gauls still held out against the invaders. And life was not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrisoned the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium …


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Gregory Doran & Antony Sher: Woza Shakespeare — Titus Andronicus in South Africa

Man, what a trip.  Titus Andronicus is not, and never will be my favorite play by William Shakespeare, but having read this book, I’d give anything to be able to watch a recording of this particular production.

In the 1980s (when Apartheid was still in full swing) Gregory Doran (later: Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and Antony Sher decided to take this most violent and controversial of all the bard’s plays to Sher’s homeland, from which he had emigrated some 20 years earlier, wowing never to return (and even dramatically burning his passport).  This book reproduces the salient parts of Doran’s and Sher’s diaries written during the project, from the moment the project was born to the play’s actual run in Johannesburg and later, London and on tour.

Insightful, illuminating, dramatic and, particularly in the moments of greatest tragedy and misfortune, surprisingly and supremely funny — this is definitely one of those books that will stay with me forever (and not only because I happen to own it).

Ovid: Metamorphoses & Apollodorus: The Library of Greek Mythology & Plutarch: Life of Theseus

For the “Monsters” square, I decided to revisit Ovid’s Metamorphoses — I had initially only been planning on the “Perseus and Medusa” and “Theseus and the Minotauros” episodes, but David Horovitch’s fabulous reading drew me right back in and I decided to — with apologies to Odysseus and his companions at Circe’s court — go the whole hog after all. If you only know Mr. Horovitch as the Inspector Slack of the BBC’s 1980s adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, do yourself a favor and run, don’t walk to get an audiobook narrated by him.  I recently listened to his reading of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, and his narration alone lifts the gut-punch quality of that novel to a wholly different visceral level in a way I would never have believed it to be possible, short of Franco Zeffirelli’s movie adaptation, that is.  I get goosebumps merely thinking about that audio recording.

The Metamorphoses are Roman poet Ovid’s tour de force parcours through a millennium’s worth of Greek and Roman mythology, focusing on the stories that (as the title says) involve some sort of transformation of one being into another — nymphs into plants and animals, humans into all sorts of creatures (animal, vegetable, mineral, you name it) … and of course, gods into whatever they please to be as well.  The book begins with the Greek creation myth (the three “prehistoric” ages — golden, silver, and iron –, the creation of humanity from “the bones of mother Earth,” i.e., rocks, by Deucalion and Pyrrha after the end of the Deluge, and the beginning of a new age), and it successively moves forward until it reaches the Trojan War, the travels of Aeneas, the mythical origins of Rome and, finally, the ages of Caesar and Augustus (i.e., Ovid’s own lifetime).  The narration is somewhat difficult to follow at times, as it is not strictly linear and contains numerous “stories within a story”; yet, for its sheer narrative and topical audacity this is justifiedly one of world literature’s great classics.

Yet, for almost all of their topical content, the Metamorphoses are only one of several sources; many of the myths recounted by Ovid are also to be found in other collections, such as those by Hesiod, Homer (of course), Vergil’s Aeneid (ditto), even historians such as Plutarch and Livy — as mythology and history formed a seamless blend in Antiquity — and, especially, also the Library of Greek Mythology traditionally attributed to Apollodorus of Alexandria.

So for comparison’s sake, I also consulted some of these sources; namely, Apollodorus’s Library — which contains among the most detailed renditions extant of both the Perseus and the Theseus myth — as well as Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, which collectively relies on all Greek sources available to Plutarch (some of which are now considered lost) and gives an overview of the, in part, substantially different versions of the Theseus saga.

(Just in case, for those unfamiliar with Greek mythology:

Medusa was a Gorgon, one of three erstwhile very beautiful sisters bewitched so as to have snakes for hair; whoever looked directly at Medusa’s face was instantly turned to stone. Perseus was able to kill her after the goddess Athena (Minerva to the Romans) had given him a shield polished to mirror clarity; he cut off Medusa’s head while she was sleeping and later used it to rescue a princess (Andromeda) from a sea dragon — as a result of which her grateful parents gave him Andromeda’s hand in marriage — and to defeat his own enemies, including Andromeda’s former suitor.

The Minotauros was half human and half bull; he was the offspring of an adulterous relationship of the wife of the king of Crete (Minos) and the sacred bull of Zeus (to the Romans; Jove / Jupiter). (Minotauros means “Minos’s bull”). As a result of a war between Crete and Athens that Crete (Minos) had won, Minos was entitled to demand tribute from Athens, and his demand was a yearly tribute of seven Athenean young men and seven Athenean virgins.  Theseus, the son of Athen’s king, sailed to Crete as one of the seven young men to be delivered on the third such voyage, and with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne (who had fallen in love with him and had given him a thread so as to not lose his way), he was able to make his way into the labyrinth where the Minotauros was kept and kill the monster, thus freeing Athens from its obligation.)

The Minoan Palace at Knossos, Crete:

Even in Antiquity, not everybody believed the version that Minos had a labyrinth built in which to hide the Minotauros, and indeed, the royal palace itself consists of such a myriad of rooms and hallways that it must have been very easy to get lost there: very likely it was reports of the palace itself that were embellished and expanded on in the process of repetition, until the legend of the labyrinth was born. (Photos: mine.)

Agios Nikolaos, Crete: Statue of Europa and the Bull

Crete is the location of a number of important Greek myths; among others, that of the abduction of Europa by Zeus / Jupiter, who is believed to have approached her in the guise of a bull.  This story, too, is (of course) recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (Photo: mine.)

Stratford-upon-Avon — Oxford — London: Shakespeare, Hogwarts and Shopping


A Scene at the RSC Book and Gift Shop
The date: June 17, 2017. The time: Approximately 10:00AM.

TA and friend enter; TA asks for a shopping basket and makes straight for the shelves and display cases. An indeterminate amount of time is then spent browsing. Whenever her friend points out something and asks “Did you see this?”, TA silently points to the steadily growing contents of her basket.  Finally, with a sigh, TA makes for the cashier.

Shop assistant: I can see why you asked for a basket when you came in … So, do you come here often?
TA: I try to make it every 2 or 3 years.  [With a sheepish grin:]  And yes, my shopping basket does look like that pretty much every single time, I’m afraid.
TA’s friend: I can confirm that …
TA: Yeah, she’s seen my library at home.
TA’s friend: Err, I can confirm the shopping sprees as well.
Shop assistant (ringing up and bagging one item after another): Well, enjoy your, um, reading …!

Similar scenes, albeit minus the above dialogue were repeated at two of the book & gift stores of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Henley Street (WS birthplace) and Hall’s Croft (home of his daughter Judith and her husband, Dr. John Hall, a physician) — where we actually did spend a fair amount of time talking to the museum assistants, too, though, about everything from visiting Shakekspearean sites to Wimbledon tennis.

That being said, we “of course” paid our (well, my) hommage to the Bard, from Trinity Church to the two above-mentioned Shakespeare family houses (return visits all to me, though Hall’s Croft was new to my friend), and just as importantly, we had tickets for two of the current “Roman plays” season productions:

(1) Antony & Cleopatra, starring Josette Simon and Anthony Byrne in the title roles, with Andrew Woodall as Enobarbus:  One of the best productions of this particular play that I’ve ever seen.  Josette Simon alone was worth the price of admission ten times over, plus she and Byrne played off each other magnificently, and Andrew Woodall was unlike any Enobarbus I’d seen before, wonderfully highlighting the ironic subtext of his character’s lines and giving him more than a hint of a laconic note.  If you’re in England and anywhere near Stratford, run and get a ticket for this production … or if you don’t make it all the way to Warwickshire, try to catch it in London when they move the production there.

(2) Julius Caesar, starring Andrew Woodall as Caesar and James Corrigan as Marc Antony.  I liked this one, too — how can any RSC production ever be bad?! — but by far not as much as Antony and Cleopatra on the night before.  Woodall was a fine Caesar, even if actually a bit too like his Enobarbus (which I might not have found quite as obvious if I hadn’t seen both plays practically back to back, on two consecutive nights), and the cast generally did a good job, but this was clearly a “look at all our up-and-coming-talent” sort of production, with almost all of the play’s lead roles given to actors who were easily 5, if not 10 or more years younger than the parts they played, which didn’t quite work for me — these people are Roman senators and generals, for crying out loud, and for the most part the requisite gravitas simply wasn’t there (yet); even if the talent clearly was.  What a contrast to the very age-appropriate and, as I said, just all around magnificent production of Antony and Cleopatra … Still, I’m by no means sorry we went to see this, and it’s obvious even now that we’ll be seeing a lot more of these actors in years to come.

We also managed to snag last-minute tickets for a “behind the scenes” tour — I’d done one in 2014 already, but was more than happy to repeat the experience!  Now I only wish our own opera and theatre company had half the resources that the RSC has at its disposal …




Photos, from top left:

1. Shakespeare’s bust, above his grave in Trinity Church
2. Shakespeare’s epitaph, on his gravestone (photo from 2014, since I didn’t get a really good one this time around. N.B., the photo is actually upside down, for somewhat greater ease of reading the inscription.)
3. Trinity Church — the graves of Shakespeare and his family are located in the part to the left of the tower.
4. River Avon, with RSC Theatre and, in the background, the spire of Trinity Church
5. RSC Theatre
6. Shakespeare’s Birthplace (Henley Street)
7.Shakespeare Birthplace Trust centre, next to the actual Henley Street Birthplace building
8. Hall’s Croft, garden view
9.New Place and Guild Chapel (photo from 2014)
10. New Place gardens, looking towards RSC and Swan Theatres (also a photo from 2014 — we didn’t make it inside New Place this time around, though we did pass by there on our way from our B&B to the RSC theatre and to Henley Street and back).

Now, since Manuel Antao insisted on “the full list” — the grand total result of the above-mentioned shopping sprees, plus a brief supplementary foray into an airport W.H. Smith, was the following:


* William Shakespeare: Antony & Cleopatra: Music and Speeches from the 2017 Royal Shakespeare Company Production

* William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar: Music and Speeches from the 2017 Royal Shakespeare Company Production

* William Shakespeare: King Lear: Music and Speeches from the 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company Production — which alas I had to miss, but it starred Antony Sher as Lear, whom I saw as Falstaff in 2014 … which in turn was just about all the reason I needed to get the audio version of his Lear, too.

*  William Shakespeare: The Tempest: Music and Speeches from the 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company Production — which I also had to miss, but I figured even if I was a year late … (plus, Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and directed — like the 2016 Lear — by Gregory Doran …?!)

*  William Shakespeare: King Richard III, full cast audio recording starring Kenneth Branagh — a long-time must-have from my TBR or, err, “to-be-listened-to” list.

The British Library, with Ben and David Crystal: Shakespeare’s original pronunciation: Speeches and scenes performed as Shakespeare would have heard them — there’s a video version of this on Youtube (I think Lora posted about it here a while back), and if you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend remedying that sooner rather than later.  It gives you a whole new insight into Shakespeare’s use of language … down to lingusitic puns, allusions and images that you really only pick up on once you’ve heard what the Bard and his original audiences would have heard in the delivery of the respective lines.



Jackie Bennett, with photographs by Andrew Lawson: Shakespeare’s Gardens — a lavishly illustrated coffee table book-sized guide to the gardens Shakespeare knew (or might have known) both in Stratford / Warwickshire and in London, as well as on the gardens of the five Shakespeare-related houses in and around Stratford, with an introductory chapter on Tudor gardening in general.  THE find of several great finds of this trip.  (And it’s even an autographed copy … as I only discovered when I unpacked the book back home!)

Roy Strong: The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden — similar to the above (though smaller in format) and a great complementary book, with plenty of historical illustrations and leading up to a focus on the New Place garden, which has painstakingly been restored in period style in recent years.

Delia Garratt and Tara Hamling (eds.): Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust — an illustrated guide to Shakespeare’s life and times in the style of the recently-popular “so-and-so [insert topic] in 100 objects” books, with 50 representative objects covering the key aspects of Shakespeare’s life from cradle to grave.

Peter Sillitoe & Maurice Hindle (ed.): Shakespearean London Theatres — what the title says, but with a handy walking map allowing the aficionado to trace not merely the locations of the various theatres but also get a sense of the areas where they were located … or at least, their respective modern incarnations.

Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (eds.), with contributions by, inter alia and in addition to the editors, Graham Holderness, Charles Nicholl, Andrew Hadfield and John Jowett, and an afterword by James Shapiro: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt — a scholarly refutation of the various “alternate authorship” theories.

Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (eds.), with contributions by, inter alia and in addition to the editors, Michael Wood, Graham Holderness, Germaine Greer and Andrew Hadfield, and an afterword by Margaret Drabble: The Shakespeare Circle — a collective biography of Shakespeare’s family, friends, business associates and patrons; a bit like Stanley Wells’s earlier Shakespeare & Co., but not merely focusing on the other key figures of Elizabethan theatre, and with individual chapters / essays designated to individual persons (or families), instead of the continuous narrative contained in Shakespeare & Co.

James Shapiro: 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear — pretty much what the title implies; a follow-up to Shapiro’s earlier focus on Shakespeare’s life in 1599.

Frank Kermode: Shakespeare’s Language — also pretty much what the title says, with a joint examination of the pre-Globe plays’ poetic and linguistic characteristics and a play-by-play examination of the last 16 plays, beginning with Julius Caesar.

Dominic Dromgoole: Hamlet: Globe to Globe — the Globe Theatre Artistic Director’s account of their recent, 2-year-long venture of taking a production of Hamlet to (literally) every single country in the world.

Antony Sher: Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries — a must-read for anyone who’s been fortunate enough to see the RSC’s 2014 productions of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and still a rioting good read if you haven’t.  Plus, the most amazing sketches by Sher himself … the man is an artist several times over!

Antony Sher & Gregory Doran: Woza Shakespeare! Titus Andronicus in South Africa — not new, but it’s been on my TBR for a while and I figured while I was at it …

Sheridan Morley: John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography — comment unnecessary.

Jonathan Croall, with a prologue by Simon Callow: Gielgoodies! The Wit and Wisdom [& Gaffes] of John Gielgud — a frequently hilarious complementary read to the above bio.

Harriet Walter: Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Womenplus, I might add, plenty of insight into Shakespearean theatre in particular and acting in general.

Harriet Walter: Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting — as the title implies, more of the above, though minus the near-exclusive focus on Shakespeare. (Instead, however, also a professional autobiography of sorts.)

Judi Dench: And Furthermore — her memoirs.  Very much looking forward to this one.

Jeanette Winterson: The Gap of Time — Hogarth Shakespeare adaptation series, The Winter’s Tale.

Anne Tyler: Vinegar Girl — Hogarth Shakespeare adaptation series, The Taming of the Shrew.

Howard Jacobson: Shylock Is My Name — Hogarth Shakespeare adaptation series, The Merchant of Venice. (I could have gone on and gotten more of those, but I figured I’d limit myself to three to begin with … 🙂 )

Ian Doescher: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope — I know, I know.  Everybody but me has already read it at this point.

Elizabeth Norton: The Lives of Tudor Women — a(nother) proximate choice, since I’ve spent so much time in their world (and that of their Plantagenet sisters / ancestors) recently, thanks in no small part to Samantha [Carpe Librum]!

Robert Harris: Imperium — Cicero trilogy, book 1.  And yes, there is a Shakespeare connection even here … think ” ’twas all Greek to me.”  (Also, as was to be expected, the RSC bookstore had Harris’s complete Roman series on their shelves as companion reads (of sorts) to their current Roman  plays season.)

Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — no Shakespeare connection here; unless Harari should be (justly) citing to Shakespeare as an exponent of human genius, that is.  Anyway, this is where the airport W.H. Smith came in handy.

Michael Connelly: The Wrong Side of Goodbye — see Harari above! 🙂

Plus a blue RSC silk scarf, a Macbeth quote T-shirt (can’t have too much of the Scottish play, ever), a First Folio canvas bag (had to get something to carry all my new treasures home in, after all), a couple of Shakespeare- and Tudor-related postcards, and of course a few more Shakespeare quote mugs and refrigerator magnets for my respective collections.



On the way from London to Stratford, we’d stopped by in Oxford: This being merely an extended weekend trip, we didn’t have a lot of time, but since our last attempt to visit this half of Oxbridge had literally been drowned by floods of torrential rain (so we ended up spending virtually all the time in the Museum of Natural History), I’d promised my friend a short visit at least — all the more since I myself had actually spent a few days in Oxford in the interim with my mom. Well, with the weather cooperating this time around, we at least managed a stroll along Broad Street and down Catte Street to Radcliffe Square, then past St. Mary’s Church to “the High,” a brief climb up Carfax Tower, and finally a visit to Hogwarts, err, Christchurch College (Tom Quad, Chapel, Great Hall and all).


Photos, from top left:

1. View from Radcliffe Square down Catte St.: Radcliffe Camera and Bodleian Library to the left; Hereford College to the right.
2. View from Carfax Tower towards St. Mary’s Church, Radcliffe Camera, Hereford College, Magdalen College, and New College.
3. / 4.: Christchurch College: Tom Quad with Tom Tower (left photo) and Chapel and Great Hall (right photo).
5.: Christchurch College, Chapel.
6.: Christchurch College, Great Hall.

(We had, incidentally, also been planning for a stop in Cambridge on the return trip from Stratford, but that had to be cancelled … which is a story for another day.  Also, this will now obviously necessitate yet another joint trip to England at some point or other!)



London, where we actually started our trip, was the first scheduled “shopping spree” stop: Since we’ve both visited London repeatedly before, no mad bouts of “mandatory” sightseeing were included; rather, merely being there tends to make both of us pretty happy campers in and of itself.  Since we’ve also more or less worked out a route covering the stores that we tend to hit on a routine basis whenever we’re visiting, it took us all but five hours to complete our program, from Neal’s Yard Remedies (at the original Neal’s Yard location in Seven Dials) all the way to Fortnum & Mason’s, with various other stops thrown in on the way, chiefly among those, Whittard of Chelsea and, this time around, Crabtree & Evelyn (which we actually do have in Germany, too, but the London branches had those irresistible sales … (sigh)).  Since I knew I was going to spend a lot of money buying books in Stratford, I decided — with a somewhat heavy heart — to forego my usual Charing Cross Road stops on this occasion; though towards the end of the aforementioned five hours (1) my left knee started to give me serious trouble, and (2) we were already laden with our other purchases to such an extent that even I had to admit there would have been no way we’d be able to carry back books to our hotel on top, so I was grudgingly reconciled … though only for the moment, and with the effect of instantly resolving to return to England sooner rather than later; a resolution that has since blossomed into fully-blown plans for a longer (and solo) follow-up trip, from the England / Wales border all the way to the Norfolk coast — and in addition to plenty of sightseeing, I’ve also promised myself plenty of book store stops along the way.



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Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio

The Dream of Scipio - Iain PearsA Fascinating blend of philosophy, morality and historical fiction.

Like probably nothing else, the breakdown of social order forces us to reach into ourselves, to draw for guidance on our innermost beliefs and moral values; for absent direction by the established rules of society, we only have ourselves to turn to for advice. – Such is the situation in which find themselves this book’s three protagonists: Manlius Hippomanes, Olivier de Noyen and Julien Barneuve; and each resolves the resulting conflict in a different fashion, based as much on his personal nature as his deeply-held convictions and values.

Manlius is a 5th century Roman aristocrat, living during the final years of the Roman Empire. Originally a man of letters more than political or religious leader, he is a member of a dying class: educated in Neoplatonism and the classical Roman tradition, cultured, and placing the survival of civilization – as embodied in traditional Roman virtues – above everything else. Yet, as his city, Vaison, and the rest of Provence comes under the dual onslaught of the Visigoths under Euric and the Burgundians under Gundobad, he abandons (if only publicly) his pagan beliefs and seeks appointment as Bishop, realizing that with the secular power of the Roman Republic weakened beyond recovery, only the Catholic church’s growing influence provides a sufficient basis for his ultimate goal: to maintain the essence of Roman civilization and culture while formally accepting the weight of the new political forces; by forming an alliance with Roman-educated Gundobad to save at least part of Provence from destruction by the Visigoths, and to ensure the continuance of Roman law and values under Burgundian administration. (As the author implicitly admits, this book’s Manlius is loosely based on St. Avitus of Vienne, who lived approximately 50 years later, actually was an advisor to Gundobad, later converted Gundobad’s son and successor Sigismund to Christianity, and whose most prominent piece of writing is a five-book-long poem on Original Sin, Expulsion from Paradise, the Deluge and the Crossing of the Red Sea which, 1100 years later, in part probably inspired Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”)

Strongly influenced by his muse’s, Neoplatonian philosopher Sophia’s teachings, Manlius lays down his own philosophy in sermons and letters – and in a treatise he entitles “The Dream of Scipio,” for the like-named excerpt from Cicero’s “Republica” describing – in the voice of Scipio Africanus – the great Roman’s vision of the universe and the rewards of immortality awaiting the good statesman. But unlike Cicero’s “Somnium Scipionis,” Manlius’s manuscript doesn’t take the form of a dream by Scipio Junior about a conversation with Scipio Africanus but that of a dream about Scipio; or rather, a conversation between Sophia and Manlius about Scipio’s comments on the fall of Carthage. And while in Manlius’s penmanship the treatise thus contains primarily a discourse on the fall of Rome (and a response to Saint Augustine’s “City of God”), this book’s two other protagonists, Olivier and Julien, in turn come to appreciate its significance as a treatise on the fall of civilization in general: For Manlius holds that civilization is a purpose in and of itself, to be perpetuated either by action premised on this singular aim, or by teaching.

Olivier and Julien, however, draw different conclusions from Manlius’s treatise than did its author for his own time. Olivier, a 14th century poet in the Avignon household of powerful Cardinal Ceccani (but like Manlius originally from Vaison) sees his world fall apart as the plague descends upon the South of France, while Ceccani and his rival Cardinal de Deaux vie for influence in the court of Pope Clement VI. Caught between the lines of political intrigue and the menace of the Black Death are Olivier’s Jewish teacher Gersonides and his servant Rebecca. And unlike his master Ceccani, who (similar to Manlius) will sacrifice individuals for a perceived greater aim, Olivier takes the opposite approach, sacrificing himself for an act of humanity and placing the well-being of two individuals – Rebecca and Gersonides – over his master’s far-reaching goals. Julien finally, a scholar who has retired to his hometown Vaison to outwait the horrors of the Third Reich and the Vichy Regime, is the most reluctant of all to take action, preferring instead to make his small contribution to the preservation of civilization through teaching. But eventually he is goaded into collaboration with the regime on the grounds that whatever he doesn’t consent to do will be done by someone with true national-socialist fervor – only to realize too late, after his lover, Jewish painter Julia Bronsen has been sent to a “labor” camp, that evil actions taken for honorable reasons often constitute the greatest of all evils.

But it is not only “The Dream of Scipio” – written by Manlius, unearthed by Olivier and Julien – and the moral choices they face that unite this novel’s three protagonists. Of similarly symbolic importance is the fate of the Jewish population, society’s eternal all-purpose scapegoat (persecuted by Manlius, protected by Clement VI after Olivier’s act of self-sacrifice and left to perish by Julien’s failure to act); and each man is strongly influence by a dark-haired muse, an outsider of society in her own way. And then, there is a little chapel just outside Vaison: consecrated to Sophia (whom, like Manlius, Christian oral tradition has made into a saint for her manifold acts of goodwill), rediscovered by Olivier, decorated by his painter-friend Luca Pisano, and temporary sanctuary to Julien and Julia.

Iain Pears masterfully weaves together the fates of the three men, three pivotal historical moments – observed in the single nucleus of one Southern French town – and philosophical questions as old as civilization itself into this spellbinding successor to his equally stunning “Instance of the Fingerpost.” Yet, his writing isn’t ponderous or heavy-handed; and while some prior understanding of the philosophical concepts discussed may enhance the book’s enjoyment, no great expertise in Neoplatonism or Catholic theology is required on the reader’s side. This is historic fiction at its best: engaging, thoughtful and well-researched to boot.


Favorite Quotes:

“Considering he was neither priest nor scholar, the young man gave sensible, thoughtful replies – the more so, perhaps, for being untrained, for he had not learned what he should believe or should not believe. Present a statement to him in flagrant contradiction to all Christian doctrine and he could be persuaded to agree on its good sense, unless he remembered it was the sort of thing of which pyres are made for the incautious.”

“Do you know, the only people I can have a conversation with are the Jews? At least when they quote scripture at you they are not merely repeating something some priest has babbled in their ear. They have the great merit of disagreeing with nearly everything I say. In fact, they disagree with almost everything they say themselves. And most importantly, they don’t think that shouting strengthens their argument.”

“[H]e initially conceived of Olivier as a man of the greatest promise destroyed by a fatal flaw, the unreasoning passion for a woman dissolving into violence, desperately weakening everything he tried to do. For how could learning and poetry be defended when it produced such dreadful results and was advanced by such imperfect creatures? At least Julien did not see the desperate fate of the ruined lover as a nineteenth-century novelist or a poet might have done, recasting the tale to create some appealing romantic hero, dashed to pieces against the unyielding society that produced him. Rather, his initial opinion – held almost to the last – was of Olivier as a failure, ruined by a terible weakness.”

“Was not Hypatia the greatest philosopher of Alexandria, and a true martyr to the old values of learning? She was torn to pieces by a mob of incensed Christians not because she was a woman, but because her learning was so profound, her skills at dialectic so extensive that she reduced all who queried her to embarrassed silence. They could not argue with her, so they murdered her.”

“She had lost herself in this old work, her personality dissolving into it, so that she had been set free. The immortality of the soul lies in its dissolution; this was the cryptic comment that so frustrated Olivier and which Julien had only ever grasped as evidence for the history of a particular school of thought. He had known all about its history, but Julia knew what it meant. He found the realization strangely reassuring.”

“His idleness was his refuge, and in this he was like many others in [occupied] France in that period; laziness became political.”

“She was looking for something I could never give her.” Again his dark eyes bored into Julia’s mind. “You have something of the same about you, young woman. Take my advice: Don’t think you will find it in another person. You won’t. It’s not there. You must find it in yourself.”

“For the first time, she did want more. She did not know what she wanted, knew that it was dangerous and that she should rest content with what she had, but she knew an emptiness deep inside her, which began to ache.”

“Felix had gone to live in a lotus land of his imagination. Where what is desired is dreamed of as already happened, where obstacles dissolve under the weight of desire, and where reality has vanished entirely.”

“And here was the moment. The end of it all, for civilization was merely another name for friendship, and friendship was coming to an end.”

“Caius was one of those who gloried in his ignorance, called his lack of letters purity, scorned any subtlety of thought or expression. A man for his time, indeed.”

“Manlius … took care in his invitations, actively sought to exclude from his circle crude and vulgar men like Caius Valerius. But they were all around; it was Manlius who lived in a dream world, and his bubble of civility was becoming smaller and smaller. Caius Valerius, powerful member of a powerful family, had never even heard of Plato. A hundred, even fifty years before, such an absurdity would have been inconceivable. Now it was surprising if such a man did know anything of philosophy, and even if it was explained, he would not wish to understand.”

“[T]he concern of man is not his future but his present, not the world but his soul. We must be just, we must strive, we must engage ourselves with the business of the world for our own sake, because through that, and through contemplation in equal measure, our soul is purified and brought closer to the divine. … Thought and deed conjoined are crucial. … The attempt must be made; the outcome is irrelevant. Right action is a pale material reflection of the divine, but reflection it is, nonetheless. Define your goal and exert reason to accomplish it by virtuous action; successs or failure is secondary.”

“Philosophy cannot be extinguished, though men will try … The spirit seeks the light, that is its nature. It wishes to return to its origin, and must forever try to reach enlightenment.”

“[Men] prefer the foolish belief and the passions of the earth [to the enlightenment of their souls]. They believe the absurd and shrink from the truth.”
“No, they do not. They are afraid, that is all. And they must remain on earth until they come to the way of leaving it.”
“And how do they leave? How is the ascent made? Must one learn virtue?”
Here she laughs. “You have read too much, and learned too little. Virtue is a road, not a destination. Man cannot be virtuous. Understanding is the goal. When that is achieved, the soul can take wing.”

“Olivier took a deep breath, then turned and bowed in farewell. Gersonides nodded in return, then thought of something.
“The manuscript you brought me, by that bishop. It argues that understanding is more important than movement. That action is virtuous only if it reflects pure comprehension, and that virtue comes from the comprehension, not the action.”
Olivier frowned. “So?”
“Dear boy, I must tell you a secret.”
“I do believe it is wrong.”

“The point of civilization is to be civilized; the purpose of action is to perpetuate society, for only in society can philosophy truly take place.”

“Civilization depends on continually making the effort, of never giving in. It needs to be cared for by men of goodwill, protected from the dark.”

“Action is the activity of the rational soul, which abhors irrationality and must combat it or be corrupted by it. When it sees the irrationality of others, it must seek to correct it, and can do this either by teaching or engaging in public affairs itself, correcting through its practice. And the purpose of action is to enable philosophy to continue, for if men are reduced to the material alone, they become no more than beasts.”

“The evil done by men of goodwill is the worst of all … We have done terrible things, for the best of reasons, and that makes it worse.”

“I have brought peace to this land, and security,” he began.
“And what of your soul, when you use the cleverness of argument to cloak such acts? Do you think that the peace of a thousand cancels out the unjust death of one single person? It may be desirable, it may win you praise from those who have happily survived you and prospered from your deeds, but you have committed ignoble acts, and have been too proud to own them. I have waited patiently here, hoping that you would come to me, for if you understood, then some of your acts would be mitigated. But instead you send me this manuscript, proud, magisterial, and demonstrating only that you have understood nothing at all.”
“I returned to public life on your advice, madam,” he said stiffly.
“Yes; I advised it. I said if learning must die it should do so with a friend by its bedside. Not an assassin.”

“When all this is over, people will try to blame the Germans alone, and the Germans will try to blame the Nazis alone, and the Nazis will try to blame Hitler alone. They will make him bear the sins of the world. But it’s not true. You suspected what was happening, and so did I. It was already too late over a year ago. I caused a reporter to lose his job because you told me to. He was deported. The day I did that I made my little contribution to civilization, the only one that matters.”

“Odd, don’t you think? I have seen war, and invasions and riots. I have heard of massacres and brutalities beyond imagining, and I have kept my faith in the power of civilization to bring men back from the brink. And yet one women writes a letter, and my whole world falls to pieces.
You see, she is an ordinary woman. A good one, even. That’s the point … Nothing [a recognizably bad person does] can surprise or shock me, or worry me. But she denounced Julia and sent her to her death because she resented her, and because Julia is a Jew.
I thought in this simple contrast between the civilized and the barbaric, but I was wrong. It is the civilized who are the truly barbaric, and the [Nazi] Germans are merely the supreme expression of it.”

“He had volunteered early, rather than waiting to be conscripted, for he felt a duty and an obligation to serve, and believed that … being willing to fight for his country and the liberty it represented, would make some small difference. … His idealism was one of the casualties of the carnage [of Verdun].”

“[Pope] Clement waved his hands in irritation as if to dismiss the very idea. “The world is crumbling into ruin. Armies are marching. Men and women are dying everywhere, in huge numbers. Fields are abandoned and towns deserted. The wrath of the Lord is upon us and He may be intending to destroy the whole of creation. People are without leaders and direction. They want to be given a reason for this, so they can be reassured, so they will return to their prayers and their obiediences. All this is going on, and you are concerned about the safety of two Jews?”

“Every cataclysm is welcomed by somebody; there is always someone to rejoice at disaster and see in it the prospect of a new beginning and a better world.”

“Politics bores you?” Bronsen said.
Julien smiled. “It does. Apologies, sir, and it is not that I haven’t tried to be fascinated. But careful and meticulous research has suggested the hypothesis that all politicians are liars, fools, and tricksters, and I have as yet come across no evidence to the contrary. They can do great damage, and rarely any good. It is the job of the sensible man to try and protect civilization from their depradations.”

“Diplomacy and virtue do not make easy companions.”

“Virtue comes through contemplation of the divine, and the exercise of philosophy. But it also comes through public service. The one is incomplete without the other. Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless.”

“Father is a school manqué … He always wanted to write books. But he became rich instead, so is not allowed.”

“Do you wish to speak in Provençal, French, or Latin? They are all I can manage, I’m afraid.”
“Any will do,” the rabbi replied in Provençal.
“Splendid. Latin it is,” said Pope Clement.”

“A hundred francs! Oh, dear me! It is worth millions of francs, my child. But my – dealer – here tells me that in fact a picture is worth only what someone will give for it. How much money do you have?”
Julia took out her purse and counted. “Four francs and twenty sous,” she said, looking up at him sadly.
“Is that all the money you have in the world?”
She nodded.
“Then four francs and twenty sous it is.”

“This is a perfectly good picture. And if I didn’t know you, I would be impressed and charmed. But I do know you.”
He thought some more, wondering whether he dared say precisely what he felt, for he knew he could never explain exactly why the idea came to him. “It’s the painting of a dutiful daughter,” he said eventually, looking at her cautiously to see her reaction. “You want to please. You are always aware of what the person looking at this picture will think of it. Because of that you’ve missed something important. Does that make sense?”
She thought, then nodded. “All right,” she said grudgingly and with just a touch of despair in her voice. “You win.”
Julien grunted. “Have another go, then. I shall come back and come back until you figure it out.”
“And you’ll know?”
“You’ll know. I will merely get the benefit of it.”