British author Iain Pears has created a literary character named Gersonides, based on the actual medieval French Jewish philosopher of the same name, known to Talmudists as Levi ben Gershom or by the acronym Ralbag.
The character appears in Pears’s new novel, The Dream of Scipio (Knopf Canada, 2002), itself a complex intellectualized study of Provence in three different historical periods — the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Black Death in the 14th century when Gersonides lived, and the relatively modern Holocaust era. The narrative intertwines the fortunes of three men, one from each era.
“The book is about certain ideas, including anti-semitism, and how they are transmitted over the centuries,” explained Pears during a recent interview in Toronto.
Gersonides is an associate of one of the book’s central characters, a medieval Christian poet named Olivier de Noyen who consults with him on a philosophical matter. This is apparently much in keeping with real life, since “little is known” of the Ralbag’s life, the Encyclopedia Judaica relates, “beyond the fact that he maintained relations with important Christian persons.”
Since our only knowledge of Gersonides is derived from the many works he wrote on mathematics, astronomy, biblical, philosophical and other subjects, Pears acknowledged that he used full artistic license in inventing a character for him.
“He was this immensely erudite and impressive figure. I found him appealing because he was written out of history . . . . One thing is clear, we have absolutely no evidence at all about his personal life. Everything we know about him comes from his output. So I had to give him a character that seemed to match his output.”
Although the presence of an oft-cited Talmudic sage in a novel may intrigue those who have encountered his writings or reputation in other contexts, Pears explained his novel in a much wider context. “It’s all about the centrality of the Jews to the whole of Western civilization — positively and negatively,” he said. “Western civilization is defined by its relation to the Jews and would be something very different if the Jews weren’t there.”
He said he conceived of the book as a means of explaining “how the French people of the 1940s could have done what they did” to the Jews during the Second World War. The book’s main character is Julien Barneuve, a supposedly “civilized” intellectual who joined the Vichy government as minister of education, in which capacity he “introduced some anti-semitic legislation that chucked all the Jews out of their jobs.”
“This was not a man who was not obviously anti-semitic — he was a good man — so the whole book is an investigation of how someone like that could have done what he did and why.”
Pears is the author of seven earlier works, mostly highly-praised detective novels like An Instance of the Fingerpost. He is also the author of a book of art history and many articles on artistic, financial and historical subjects.
But The Dream of Scipio “took me by surprise. It was supposed to be just a story when I started writing it. I didn’t realize it was going to come out like this.” As Jews are fundamental to the story, the 47-year-old Oxford-educated author explained that he became intrigued with the subject because his wife and family are Jewish.
As for Gersonides, Pears said he grew to like him while writing the book. “He’ll come across for what he was, a man of immense wisdom. I have no way of telling if my interpretation of his character is correct. I became rather fond of him. I gave him a rather likeable character, if a somewhat cranky one. Whether he would like that or not, I don’t know.” ♦