Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ruth Harris' "Dreyfus"

Ruth Harris is the author of Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. A fellow and tutor at Oxford University, she has written widely on topics in French history, cultural history, women’s history, and the history of medicine.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century, and reported the following:
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you…”

Not in the case of my book on Dreyfus – only some of the major themes are alluded to. Page 99 is half used up by illustrations, but it is not a picture book, although it does bring into focus the importance of the Affair first and foremost as a spy story . One of the first, in fact, replete with tales of stolen documents, forged evidence, people in disguises. There were agents, double-agents and spymasters. Mysterious women (invented) delivering messages while shrouded in black veils, and debauched scoundrels who sold secrets to pay gambling debts. All this is alluded to on page 99.

But the spy story did little more than get it all going. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jewish soldier falsely accused of espionage at the end of the nineteenth-century. His case – which pitted supporters of the army against supporters of justice from 1894 until his exoneration in 1906 – tore France apart, became an international scandal and set off political shock waves which have lasted to this day.

From then on it became a battle of high principle and low politics which sucked in the greatest in the land – presidents, premiers, authors and scientists. The “intellectuals” made their first appearance on the stage. Old friends lied to each other, new and unlikely alliances were formed. Some rallied meetings of tens of thousands of people and led street riots, others consulted mediums to gain a mystical insight into events. It was a battle of beliefs and ideas as much as of spies, a contest of fundamental ideas and personal philosophies about the essence of what it is to be French and a citizen – and whether that was compatible with parallel identities as a Jew, a Protestant, a Catholic or – nowadays – a Muslim.

Page 99 has little to say on this: it alludes to the spying, the political manoeuvring; the reader meets some of the most important actors -- Esterhazy, the real spy; Picquart the soldier jailed because he thought Dreyfus innocent; Schwartzkoppen the German spymaster; Scheurer-Kestner, the venerable Senator who risked his reputation for Dreyfus and died of cancer the day of his release; Billot, the minister who blocked attempts to investigate the case. But you will not find out what made them all tick, why they took the positions they did. For that, you will have to read on….
Learn more about Dreyfus at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue