by Jean-Denis Bredin
I have but one passion, one for seeing the light, in the name of humanity which has so suffered and which is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is but the cry of my soul. - Emile Zola, "J'Accuse"
While reading Proust's classic novel, In Search of Lost Time, I was impressed with the importance and pervasive nature of the Dreyfus Affair. While Proust abstained from politics most of his life, he made an exception of the Dreyfus Affair, when he actively took up the defense of Captain Dreyfus. Traces of this appear throughout his masterpiece. In a letter to his friend Mme Geneviève Strauss (née Halévy), daughter of the composer Jacques Fromental Halévy, widow of Georges Bizet, model for the Duchesse de Guermantes in Proust’s roman fleuve, and whose salon was a center of Dreyfusard activity, Proust attempted to enlist her aid in the fight. Ultimately most of the major characters were identified with one side or the other of the Dreyfus Affair.
It was the author Emile Zola, however, whose article, "J'Accuse", was the most memorable moment of the Dreyfus Affair and it sits at the center of Jean-Denis Bredin's detailed study entitled The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. The article electrified France and reinvigorated the Dreyfusards, as the supporters of the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus were called. While both monumental and essential, coming as it did two days after the scandalous acquittal of Commandant Esterhazy, it was only a single moment among many important moments and details that are recounted in Bredin's comprehensive history. Even for readers living more than a century later who know the outcome of the Dreyfus Case, this book reads like a detective mystery with twist and turns, double-dealing, missing documents, forgeries and more. It contains the details from the earliest moments when Dreyfus is first identified as a suspected traitor due as much to his race as to anything else and certainly not because he ever had any dealings that were remotely traiterous since he was, ironically, a model soldier and a patriot.
Bredin's artistry lies in his ability to weave the many sometimes disparate details together in a narrative that maintains the reader's interest. This he does ably with a lucid style that betrays the underlying complexity of the actual events. Other commentators have noted the suspense and drama that the author is able to portray with this lucid style. I agree with them but also admire his choice to go beyond the details to share the meaning of the affair for the family, the participants, their nation and the world. The era he covered was the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the next. It was one that saw much turmoil in both national and international cultural history. The Dreyfus Case was an important part of that history as this book makes eminently clear.
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