I read these two books a while ago, and half finished my reviews. Now at last completed below. I took too much pleasure in reading these two books to let them linger in obscurity.
Robert Harris takes on the Dreyfus affair in his latest novel ‘An Officer and a Spy’. Harris has of course written historical novels before, and sometimes tweaks history into an ‘if…. then’ story as in Fatherland, but this time round he writes a fascinating account of the Dreyfus affair in France at the end of the 19th Century with its prejudices and superstitions, its anti-Semitism and misogyny. The story is related from the point of view of the officer who in the first instance supported the condemnation of Dreyfus but who subsequently, through painstaking research, helped subvert the original judgment. I’d only ever heard of Zola’s ‘J’accuse’ as being one of the main reasons for the retrial of Dreyfus after four years on Devil’s island, where he was deprived of all human communication, locked up in a small cell, and subjected to the most cruel treatment. However, there was this army officer who realized the injustice that was being done and who risked his own career in the army in order to question the treatment of Dreyfus.
The officer in question was Georges Picquart who took over from Lt Col Jean Conrad Sandherr as the head of the military counter-intelligence section at the French War Ministry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/. He was young and was considered brilliant; he was hardworking and when appointed seemingly shared all the prejudices of his environment.
An Officer and a Spy is un-putdown-able: it draws you into the late 19th century France, with its highly charged and nearly hysteric views on Jews, on women and on the precarious position of France, which might succumb to an immediate attack by Germany at any time. Slowly but painstakingly Picquart lays bare all the irregularities that have taken place prior and during the trial, the presumptions of guilt that surrounded the Dreyfus trial and although we know now that Dreyfus will get a retrial, the tension is nevertheless sustained very well and it is not at all clear what will happen to Picquart, who is being undermined by his commanders and fellow officers and who is ultimately accused of treason himself. (Unless of course you Google his name and read the Wikipedia entry on him!) Picquart believes in the institution that he serves, the Army, and finds it hard to square what is happening to him through the hands of his masters and colleagues with an institution that he reveres.
It is also clear that Dreyfus and Picquart don’t actually like each other very much, nevertheless there is respect and
Picquart’s observations and analyses are masterfully evoked and his character is beautifully developed.
This is a really fascinating book that shocks in terms of identifying prejudices and the realisation that ‘The State’ will undermine its own when it feels threatened. Well we know that, but it still comes as a shock that a country like France at the end of the 19th century would so blatantly disregard the basic human rights of being innocent until proven guilty; it’s not really that long ago. And the appalling anti-Semitism is part and parcel of most of European society, not just in France we can assume.
Having finished this book by Harris I picked up Lisa Appignanesi’s Paris Requiem, which is set in the same time (and place) but is a fictional murder mystery against the backdrop of poverty, anti-Semitism and misogyny. Appignanesi is quite a prolific writer, a novelist, journalist (she writes for the Guardian), editor and broadcaster. She is well into the psychology of women, which is a focus of this book, set in a Paris that includes a lunatic asylum, where some dreadful forms of hypnotism and ‘cures’ are practiced.
The book reads like a Henri James novel of an American in Paris, contrasting the old world (Europe with all its prejudices, hang-ups and class distinctions) against the new world of America, where people appear to be more innocent and less prejudiced, more matter of fact. James Norton, a well-established lawyer in America, has been sent to Paris by his mother to make sure that his brother and sister, who have decided to stay there, will return to America. Once in Paris however he becomes obsessed with Olympe, his brother’s lover, who has been murdered before he gets to meet her. Olympe is not only an actress and very beautiful, she is also Jewish which provides the setting for the dreadful treatment of Jews, in particular impoverished Jews, in the time that the Dreyfus case is in full swing.
I highly recommend both books although I found the first of these two books the more fascinating one, with the excellent character developments and the ability to keep you completely absorbed by what is happening. Lisa Appignanesi’s book on the other hand seems just that little bit too long and drawn out, but that should not stop you from trying to get hold of a copy to read it. It’s well written, and there is a lot of research, solid and carefully crafted into a fictional story. It has some wonderful references to the sordidness of Paris at the time including the horrific development of views on neurological disorders, especially in women, that can be traced back to an anatomical dissection, with a hospital full of ‘brains in a jar’ that supposedly provide proof. Ugh….
- ROBERT HARRIS: A chilling lesson from history and why shackling the Press is inimical to liberty (thisismoney.co.uk)
- Weekend Bookworm: An Officer and a Spy (blogs.abc.net.au)