‘It is as if all the loathing and recrimination bottled up since the defeat of 1870 has found an outlet in a single individual.’ – A discussion of An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris
On Tuesday, I attended a book discussion to which Pauline, my fellow Usual Suspect, had invited me. The novel under consideration was An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. (This was one of those instances in which I’d already read and very much liked the book. I love it when that happens.)
Our discussion leader had requested that we read “Under Siege,” a chapter from The Greater Journey by David McCullough; in addition, he encouraged us to view “A Leap of Faith,” an episode from Simon Schama’s documentary “The Story of the Jews.” The discussion leader wanted us to have an historical perspective from which to view the events of Robert Harris’s novel. (The ‘siege’ described by McCullough occurred during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. It brought Paris to its knees and is a horrific story.)
An Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus case. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the artillery division of the French army, was accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. Having been subjected to a mortifying defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, France’s armed services still regarded Germany as the enemy and the hated former overlord. This treasonous action would therefore be regarded with the utmost outrage, with the traitor being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Completely understandable – except for one crucial fact: Dreyfus did not do it.
He was, nevertheless, convicted. After enduring the appalling and very public humiliation of la dégradation, he was deported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he was imprisoned alone, in ghastly conditions and under extreme duress, for just under five years. In 1899 Dreyfus was returned to France to be tried again. Incredibly, he was once more found guilty. But that verdict was set aside. Ultimately, Dreyfus was exonerated and declared innocent of all the charges brought against him. In 1906, he was reinstated in the army of France as a major.
Why was Alfred Dreyfus made a scapegoat in this matter? He had several factors mitigating against him. He and his family were Alsatian. The Germans had seized Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War, and as a result, most patriotic French men and women refused to go on living there. (The affect of this brusque transition is described in the most poignant way in Alphone Daudet’s story, “The Last Class.“) Dreyfus’s family stayed; they spoke German as well as French. In addition, the family possessed considerable wealth. But the single thing that told most powerfully against Alfred Dreyfus was the fact that he was Jewish.
The summary above is vastly simplified. In his review of Louis Begley’s book Why the Dreyfus Affair Still Matters, Adam Gopnik states:
The unmaking of the Dreyfus case is a very long story—so complex, and taking place at such a snail’s pace and in such wayward directions, that almost no one has ever been able to relate it simply.
Indeed, from beginning to end. L’Affaire Dreyfus is fiendishly complicated. From amidst a welter of information, Robert Harris admits that at first, he was stymied in his efforts to craft a coherent narrative. Only when Colonel Picquart emerged as a compelling figure in his own right did the material begin to assume a form that the author could work with.
As the newly appointed Chief of Staff of Army Intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart is tasked with keeping a close eye on the ramifications of the Dreyfus affair. Beginning in 1896, Picquart sets out to do just that. At first, he is firmly of the belief that Dreyfus was guilty of treason, a belief strongly reinforced by the concurrence of fellow service members and friends. But as he looks more closely into the matter, doubts take root and begin to grow. Ultimately, Picquart risks his career and his freedom as he seeks vindication for Alfred Dreyfus. This, despite the fact that he, Picquart, has no particular liking for the Jews and actively disliked Dreyfus himself, a man who by all reports was not possessed of an appealing personality.
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion of this novel involved the question of Picquart’s motivation. Why would he risk everything in order to pursue this investigation? Commenting on this point, one person said that he was always intrigued by the question of motive in a situation like this. What causes one individual to act as Picquart does in this case, laying everything on the line for a cause in which he’s not directly involved, while others turn away and seek safety in inaction? In the course of a brief conversation with Dreyfus’s brother Matthieu, Picquart himself provides a direct, if rather cold and oversimplified, response:
I make my way round the dining room shaking the hand of each man in turn. Mathieu covers mine with both of his. “My family and I cannot adequately express our gratitude to you, Colonel.”
There is something proprietorial about his warmth which makes me feel awkward, even chilly. “You have no reason to thank me,” I reply. “I was simply obeying my conscience.”
The writing of this novel came about as a result of Robert Harris’s collaboration with Roman Polanski on the filming of an earlier novel The Ghost. (In the U.S., the film was entitled The Ghost Writer.) Word has it that these two are preparing to film – may already be filming? – An Officer and a Spy. Interestingly, they won’t be the first ones to tackle the Dreyfus case in this medium. French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès made this movie in 1899, before the final resolution of the case had even been decided on:
Inevitably, the subject of anti-Semitism in France was raised. Prejudice against those of the Jewish faith abates from time to time but apparently can never be completely extirpated. This is the message of the Simon Schama program referenced above. This subject is oddly current, what with the recent firebombing of a synagogue in a suburb of Paris.
In fairness to France, similar acts and demonstrations turning violent are occurring in other European countries as well. The ostensible reason at the present time is the Israeli shelling of Gaza. People in our discussion group expressed dismay that anti-Israel sentiment appears to be serving as a cloak for anti-Semitism – a rather transparent cloak. (Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: One wishes the killing to stop; one wishes for hostilities to cease; one wishes for war to stop – STOP NOW.)
This was an extremely stimulating and worthwhile discussion. I would definitely recommend this title to other book groups.
Robert Harris has written nine novels. I’ve read six of them. I think he’s a terrific writer.
Thanks are due to Fellow Usual Suspect Carol for directing my attention to this video. (And really – what would I do without the wonderful Suspects in my life?)