Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Stone's Fall

Back in 2002, as the world was dealing with the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and there were rumors of retaliatory measures to be taken in Iraq and before news of Guantanamo hit the papers, I picked up a new novel by Iain Pears called The Dream of Scipio.

First the story.

I was familiar with Pears' work.  Readers will know that I love a good mystery series and Pears had, in the 1990's, written a series of mysteries involving an art dealer named Jonathan Argyll and a colleague who was a member of the Italian art theft squad.  They were fun, they were erudite and they were slightly more literary than the average mystery story .  Then in 2000 he had written his first "serious" novel, The Instance of the Fingerpost, a long novel told from multiple points of view set in the 1600's.  It was an unexpected success.  I read it but I don't remember much about it other than that it was long, must have taken a ton of research and it kept my attention.  So, when I picked up The Dream of Scipio I expected I might enjoy it.  I did not expect, however, to encounter a novel so suited to its times and so thought provoking.

A story involving three men living in three different periods (none of them the present time), The Dream of Scipio examined how otherwise good men responded, sometimes in bad ways, to the idea that civilization was falling apart and that there were people "out there" who were threatening a way of life.  It asked the reader to consider what "civilization" meant and whether it was reasonable to betray core values in the name of preserving civilization.  What, in the end, are you left with if you lose your soul or those most dear to you and yet save  "civilization"? 

As Pears said in a rare interview, the idea that there are barbarians at the gate can bring out the barbarian in otherwise civilized persons. It is not the outside barbarians who truly threaten a civilization. Civilizations crumble from within and only when they are weak enough can an outside force topple them. 

It seemed unlikely that Pears began to write a novel of the length and complexity of The Dream of Scipio after the September 11 attacks and manage to have it written, edited and published in just a few months, so I assumed he just had incredible good luck in choosing to write on this theme at exactly that time. 

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Iain Pears has more than simple good luck and is, in fact, prescient.  How else do I explain that his new novel, Stone's Fall, is a novel about financial crises that arrives in the midst of the greatest financial crisis we have seen since the 1930's?

Stone's Fall is a long book (about 600 pages) and I couldn't put it down.  I had to force myself not to read too late into the evening because I wanted it to have my full attention.  The story begins in the 1950's in Paris at the funeral of an elderly woman.  One of the funeral goers is told that a mysterious package is to be sent to him that has been held by a firm of London solicitors since the 1940's.  It was to be delivered only upon the death of the woman. 

The man, Matthew Braddick, is a retired radio newsman and the first part of the novel is his recollection of the year 1909 when he, a young newspaper reporter, is asked to search for a missing person who may or may not be alive and the clues to whose existence lie in some papers that have mysteriously disappeared.  The second part of the novel is the contents of the mysterious package delivered to Braddick in Paris, a memoir of Henry Cort that takes place in the year 1890 when he was beginning his life as a spy in the service of the British Foreign Office.  The third part of the novel consists of the mysterious papers that Braddick was originally looking for in the first part.  It is a memoir of John Stone recounting the year 1867 when he was a youngish, wealthy man trying to figure out what to do with his life.  He will eventually become (we have learned in the other two sections) a fabulously wealthy and influential businessman who controls most of the defense industry in Britain and eventually is knighted, becoming Lord Ravenscliff.

The person who connects all of these stories is John Stone's wife Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff.  It is she who commissions Matthew Braddick to discover the missing person, a child of John Stone's who is named in his will.  She is a key person in the early career of Henry Cort and of course she marries John Stone.  But although she draws all three parts of the novel together it would be, I think, a mistake to think that this is a novel about Elizabeth.  This is a novel that is, in part, about the effect that Elizabeth had on these three men and on their obsession (in their different ways) with her and how that affected their lives.

It is also a novel about the incestuous relationship between finance, politics and industry: between war and commerce where a war can make millionaires and the lack of a war can threaten ruin for companies that make the means of engaging in war; between politicians who are investors in companies that also need their political support; about how a financial crisis in one bank can threaten to bring down the entire financial markets and, with them, governments and empires; about how a good idea or invention is not enough without the financial wherewithal and the organization to get it into production.   All of these relationships can bring great benefit but they can also bring destruction.

On a personal level it is about human relationships and how they can become commodities and business arrangements too:  sex as a way to support oneself whether as a simple whore or a courtesan; persons who are forced into family businesses; marriages that are partnerships and those that aren't; money as a weapon and a tool.

This novel has so many pieces that I'm going to have to read it again, perhaps when I go on vacation, to truly appreciate how Pears constructed it.   But on top of all the themes that he has woven into the novel, he also tells a story that keeps the pages turning.  Part of me didn't want to reach the end and part of me wanted to get there to find out "all the answers". 

If there was one weakness in the novel I think it is Elizabeth, who is also the novel's greatest strength.  Pears simultaneously made her fascinating enough that the reader is swept along, wanting to know more about her, while at the same time he constructed her mostly of archetypes.   This is somewhat similar to what he did in The Dream of Scipio in which the three women play important roles in the lives of the three male characters and yet are also "types".   The difference I think is that Scipio was written in the third person and that lent a certain authority to the descriptions of the women characters.  I didn't feel that I knew everything about them but I felt that they were real and that I understood enough.

Stone's Fall is written by three (very) unreliable male narrators who notice only what they want to notice about Elizabeth.  She cannot be completely real to the reader because she is not, I think, completely real to Braddick or Cort who narrate most of her story.  They are besotted the way men become besotted (and maybe she wanted it that way) and are unable to think of her in an objective way.

In general I think this is not a bad thing to do, but she is so central to the story told by Braddick and Cort  that I think a reader can make the mistake of thinking the novel is about her.  When it is not.  And I admit that I was, at first, a little taken aback by the end which may be thought to explain certain things about her but doesn't really.  I won't give it away, but my immediate reaction was to wonder if Pears simply wanted a sensationalized ending to draw the story to a close.  But after a few moments I realized that of course the ending fit in perfectly with the entire theme of the novel and that if a reader hadn't understood the theme prior to that ending, the reader was going to be hit over the head with it so he didn't miss it.

At least that's what I think Pears intended.  On the other hand, after I wrote the above I finally read some of the reviews that I had been avoiding (I like to do that on books that I know I'm going to read so as not to read any spoilers) and found that not a soul wrote about the major themes of the novel and they all focused on the story of Elizabeth.   I find that odd.  But when Scipio came out I also found that not a single reviewer that I read wrote about the themes of that novel either and all focused solely on plot.  So maybe I'm just an odd reader of books.

In any event, I heartily recommend Stone's Fall to those who are looking for a novel of substance and who want food for thought.  I will be feasting on this novel for months as I think about it.