Tag Archives: European history

“The Dream of Scipio” by Iain Pears

I’ve putting off writing about The Dream of Scipio because it is the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read in years. It was selected as “summer” reading by a book group I attend only intermittently. During the academic year, the group’s schedule often conflicts with mine. In summer, the group reads a long work and gathers for dinner as well as discussion. I looked forward to this event, but was called for a volunteer service project and missed it. Darn! One friend reported that the discussion was good but “didn’t get to the interesting stuff”. There’s so much “interesting stuff” in this book, how would you know where to begin? (Asking the starting question for a book group is a serious responsibility!)

The “dream” in the book title refers to a dream or vision attributed to the Roman general Scipio Africanus and recounted by both Cicero and Chaucer. The dream bears a warning about the perils of vanity and power. (I’m dipping into Wikipedia and eNotes.com for this.)

Iain Pear’s novel has a fixed geographical focus, namely the city and surroundings of Avignon, France. Three historical eras are included.

  • the later Roman empire
  • the fourteenth century “plague years”
  • World War II

Calling this book “historical fiction” is a serious oversimplification.

The novel begins with a suicide by burning. Not for the faint of heart.

I interpreted the book as a harsh critique of the impact of Christianity on the cultures that came before it.

The sets of characters in each era are so strongly parallel that reincarnation comes to mind. Is the “wise woman” portrayed in each era really the same woman, or in some sense an archetype, Sophia the goddess of wisdom?

I plan to reread this book when I can get my hands on a hard copy. The Kindle is not ideal for a book that requires the reader to skip back and forth. It’s not a good book to put down and then pick up two weeks later. I highly recommend reading The Dream of Scipio with a group, so you will have ample opportunity for discussion.

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“Temperament – How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization” by Stuart Isacoff.

Vintage Books, 2003. 233 pages, with illustrations, bibliography and index.

There’s a piano on the front of this book, but it’s funny looking. There’s a black key in the middle, with three white keys on each side, then alternating black and white keys, uninterrupted. Some of the black keys bear distinguishing marks. Who could play this mutant instrument?! What would it sound like?

I play piano, read music competently and occasionally sing in a chorus. I knew a little about the issues involved in piano tuning, but I had NO IDEA how long, convoluted and contentious was the historical path that led to our modern tunings and the pair of scales we commonly hear and employ (major and minor).

I would rate my understanding of this book at about 50%. Isacoff plunges into mathematics (including geometry), Egyptian, Greek and European history (including astrology and alchemy), psychology and philosophy as he discusses how we got to where we are today.

European music was initially greatly influenced by “the ancients”, the Greek philosophers. These were wise men, but some of their ideas about music were out of touch with physical reality, and it took a long time to sort things out. Music inherently requires selectivity. You can’t use every tone, every interval. Why do some tones or intervals sound good, others “dissonant”? Why does music have so much emotional impact? What kind of music is “natural”? Is there a link between music and morality?

Of course I want to hear some of the music referenced in this book, especially the intervals and the infamous “wolf” tones that emerge from certain tunings. Another reason to dig in to U-Tube.

A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called this book “a whirlwind tour of Western culture’s big ideas…” That sums it up very well.

“Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel” by Alix Christie

I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction, and it’s nice to take a break from merrie olde England. This novel takes place in Germany, during the mid fifteenth century. The protagonist is Peter Shoeffer, an orphan who faced a harsh life in rural poverty until being adopted by a distant relative.

Shoeffer was apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg, who is generally credited with inventing movable type. This technological revolution is often identified as the beginning of “modern civilization”.

Printing was as surprising and destabilizing as the emergence of the internet. Before that time, all books were the work of scribes, and the church had a monopoly on their services.

Christie’s book emphasizes the aesthetic aspects of printing.

Gutenberg is portrayed as a wild man – unpredictable, demanding, sometimes unscrupulous, and certainly a genius.

Christie provides lots of detail and atmosphere, as well as some romance. I hope this impressive first novel is followed by others.

“Chrysalis – Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis” by Kim Todd

Published by Harcourt, Inc. 2007. 282 pages. Includes both black/white and color plate reproductions of Merian’s artwork.

This book addresses several of my favorite subjects – nature, science, history and artand the role of women in all of the above! Add to this that the writing is clear and lively, and it’s an all around winner.

Maria Sibylla Merian lived from 1647 to 1717. She was born into a family of printers and artists, and had unusual opportunities for education and training in art. She was a type of child still recognizable today, one totally fascinated by insects! (I meet many such children in various settings and at various ages. How I wish they could all be thoroughly “indulged” in their passion!)

If you investigate Merian on line, you will find many more of her pictures than pictures of her. Her artwork is stunning – colorful, detailed, lifelike and comprehensive, often including all the life stages of a moth or butterfly, plus associated plants.

One unusual feature of her life story is that Merian spent six years living in the “cloistered” religious community of a radical Protestant sect called Labadists or pietists. Merian’s half brother joined the group and a community was established near his remote country manor in Friesland (Netherlands). Merian continued her scientific study and artwork during her time with the pietists.

Returning to the secular world, Merian further established herself as an artist and scientist, then (at age 52) left Europe for an extended stay in Surinam, to continue her studies. After two years, malaria forced her to return home.

I don’t know whether Kim Todd considers herself a biographer or a nature writer. This book combines the two seamlessly, and I found it intelligent and entertaining.