Manlius is a 5th C Roman patrician living in Provence who has studied with the wise, reclusive Sophia. He writes his understanding of her teaching in his essay, 'Dream of Scipio,' which trades on an essay by the great Roman orator, Cicero. Sensing that the Empire is gravely threatened, he makes a pact with barbarians, sells out his neighbors, slays his adopted son, and becomes a bishop of the Christian religion, which he has long despised. Late in this ruthless and doomed attempt to salvage what he values most in his world, Sophia makes it clear that he has misunderstood her teaching.

Olivier is an astonishingly gifted 14th century Provencal poet whose intolerant father tries to stifle his love of letters, among which is Manlius's 'Dream'; his father destroys the manuscript, but Olivier recopies it from memory. As plague advances on their region, Olivier finds a mentor in the high churchman, Ceccani, who is bent on keeping the papacy in Avignon. He plans to destroy Jews as symbolic expiation for plague, widely construed to be a form of divine punishment. Olivier befriends a Jewish scholar and falls in love with his beautiful heretic servant.

The 'Dream' and the imprisonment of his friends lead Olivier to question and then betray his mentor. Either because of his efforts to save them, or for his role in a murder, he is mutilated--his tongue and hands cut off to rob him of speech and writing. The brutal mutilation appears early in the book--it is not fully explained until the end.

Julien is a French historian who has studied the poet, Olivier, and the rendition of Manlius' manuscript. He finds solace in his erudition as his county falls to the Nazi occupation. An old school friend who is a collaborator, gives him work as a censor and tolerates Julien's Jewish lover, the artist Julia. In the end, Julien is forced to choose between saving either another school friend in the Resistance or Julia. He chooses Julia, looses her anyway, and commits suicide in a vain attempt to warn his friend.


A majestic, tri-partite, historical novel that addresses honor in the actions of humans who are confronted with catastrophic threats to their stable systems of law and belief. The tension between high philosophical ideals and the bonds of love and friendship is common to all three stories, which take place in widely separated centuries in the same part of southern France. The plausibility of evil actions is well conveyed.

Each protagonist is forced to compromise on one or more of his cherished values in a futile attempt to spare something else that he holds even more dear. Disaster is the always result and yet, in this context, it may have been the only honorable course.

For this reader, gender seems to be of utmost importance to this novel--most women are wise, virtuous, talented, beautiful--some more than others, but all are powerless, even illiterate, and often misrepresented and misinterpreted. The men, including 'Manlius'-the least sympathetic character--have some power, yet their choices are limited by their ideologies.

Unlike the four successive stories in An Instance of the Fingerpost (see annotation in this database), these three tales are interwoven, just a few pages at a time. The juxtaposition further emphasizes their many parallels, thereby highlighting the overall message of confused and constrained morality in times of crisis--a human problem that does not change with time.


Alfred A. Knopf

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