Ruth Harris's "Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century"

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Sunday, July 4, 2010


Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century

By Ruth Harris

Metropolitan. 542 pp. $35

One of Ruth Harris's goals in this book is to delve into the motivations of the actors in what she calls "the scandal of the [19th] century." That includes showing that the supporters of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army framed for leaking secret documents, were not plasterboard saints.

Hence her complex portrait of Émile Zola, the novelist who took up Dreyfus's cause so boldly as to publish an open letter to the president of the French republic, in effect indicting the nation for mendacity and anti-Semitism, and beginning with the clarion call "J'Accuse . . !" In Harris's reading of his character, Zola saw the affair as a great opportunity for him, perhaps a capstone to his literary career -- as indeed it was. "He realized, of course, that the Affair was not a novel, that it involved the destinies and reputations of real men and women. None the less he came to see the Affair, and especially his role in it, as one of his own literary creations: 'I am in the process of writing the most beautiful page of my life. A great joy and great glory are happening to me.' " For all the good he did by calling attention to the French military's dissembling and coverups, Harris asserts, Zola was rather a mixed blessing to the cause for which he fought: "His tendency to demonize helped to destroy any possibility of compromise."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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