ON 15 October 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus kissed his wife and children, stepped out of his house on Paris' Avenue du Trocad,ero and into a nightmare of Kafkaesque somberness. His destination was the French War Ministry, a brooding building which squats upon the angle formed by Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Rue Saint-Dominique. Upon arrival, he was greeted by Major du Paty de Clam who asked him to be seated and take a dictation. Dreyfus complied with this apparently bizarre request, only to discover much later that du Paty wished to compare his handwriting with that on a report, obviously written by a traitor, which French intelligence hd rescued from the German military attach,e's wastebasket. Hardly had Dreyfus written down the words than the major clamped his hand on the captain's shoulder and announced that he was under arrest for the crime of high treason. However, to demonstrate that he was not merely a heartless gendarme, du Paty offered the unfortunate Dreyfus a revolver with one bullet in the chamber and suggested that he make an honorable exit.

This confrontation between two relatively obscure officers in the bowels of the French War Ministry was slowly and methodically to develop into an affaire which was to transform the face of French politics for roughly the first half of the 20th century. Of course, scandal was nothing new to France -- on the contrary, the French seemed by the 1890s to have developed a fairly buoyant industry in political corruption. However, even by the high standards of the French Third Republic, that which swirled around Captain Dreyfus at the turn of the century was an absolute corker. In comparison, Watergate looks like a skit straight out of Ted Mack's Amateur Hour. After all, how could Richard Nixon's departure possibly compare with that, in 1899, of French President F,elix Faure who "died on the job," as the newspapers would say, his hands still clutching the hair of his shrieking and completely naked mistress, Madame Steinhell?

Spying upon political opponents in Belle Epoque France was so commonplace that it never occurred to anyone to complain about it. But the Dreyfus Affair was twisted enough to enlist the attentions -- and the passions -- even of the jaded Parisians. And how could it fail with a cast of characters which included intelligence officers who liked to wear false beards, a covey of politically ambitious generals, a pair of homosexual military attach,es (who addressed each other affectionately as "My Little Bugger" and "My Little Dog"), anti-Semitic loonies, spies, traitors, clairvoyants and mind readers, heavily veiled women passing on secret messages, Emile Zola, Jean Jaur army which appeared on the verge of mutiny, and, at its center, an innocent man falsely convicted?

While all of this offered a promising beginning, in itself it was little more than a collection of elements for a fairly pedestrian piece of detective fiction. What transformed the condemnation of Alfred Dreyfus to Devil's Island into a full-blown affaire was the context in which it took place. Paris at the turn of the century provided fertile ground for intrigue. Like any capital city, perhaps more than most, it was a place where the ambitious and the simply dishonest clawed for advantage in a political world of remarkable instability. For the left especially, the growing doubts cast upon Dreyfus' conviction, mainly through the indefatigable efforts of Mathieu Dreyfus to clear his brother's name, offered a golden opportunity to break the center-right's monopoly on political power. But even the radical right, the rump of the Boulangists and the small but poisonous group of anti-Semites, seized the opportunity to attack the political establishment, playing upon the insecurity and prejudice of various social groups who feared for their futures in the changing conditions of modern France.

The Dreyfus Affair, as Bredin so clearly demonstrates, was a crystallization of confusion -- social, political and legal. When examined closely, it is still not altogether clear what was going on. To contemporaries, the scheming, the political and legal maneuvering, the false accusations and forgeries, must have appeared utterly baffling. If any sense were to be made of the affair, it must be translated into moral terms. This was the major contribution of Georges Cl,menceau -- by enlisting the battalions of Parisian intellectuals in the cause of Dreyfus, he managed to elevate what was essentially a legal and political struggle into a moral one. With the publication in 1898 of Emile Zola's "J'accuse," which offered a fairly comprehensive list of indictable offenses committed by the general staff, the cause of revision became one of progress against reaction, the Revolution against vielle France, of right against wrong. France was cast into turmoil and split into warring factions -- so much so that the young Francois Mauriac, whose anti-Dreyfusard parents had named his potty after the famous writer, could be told, va faire caca dans ton Zola. T

HE MERITS of Bredin's book are essentially two. Firstly, he tells the story

better than it has ever been told before. With his keen legal mind (the author is a member of the Paris bar), he leads us through the maze step by step, stripping away false testimony, refusing to follow promising but erroneous theories, sacrificing nothing of the drama of events and the nobility or hideousness of the players. Even for those who know the case by heart, it makes for gripping reading. For those who know nothing of Dreyfus it will be a revelation.

Secondly, The Affair is a work of mature and dispassionate scholarship, which does much to scrape away the accretion of myth which encrusts the Dreyfus episode even today. Bredin shows that the affair was far more complex than the divisions assigned to it can account for -- for instance, although the affair is traditionally thought to have pitted the church and the army against the left, the Jews and the Protestants, he points out that Dreyfus was defended by a conservative Catholic lawyer, and that at the side of Major Esterhazy, the actual traitor around whom the army rallied, was a Jewish officer whose complicity has never been fully established. The minor conspirators -- Henry, du Paty, Lauth, Gonse -- appear less than the evil criminals of legend and rather more a collection of overzealous and incompetent functionaries who make Inspector Clouseau look like Maigret on his best day.

While Bredin identifies complexity everywhere, he treats the army as a stolidly pro-clerical institution opposed in its heart to the republic. In fact, the French army at the turn of the century was a patchwork of clans and loyalties. Many of its officers were by no means hostile to the republic. On the contrary, they recognized that the army had prospered far more under the republic than it ever had under Napoleon III's empire.

Many officers, like Hubert Lyautey, a future marshal of France, blamed the affair on the arrogance of a general staff which they disliked for its monopolization of the choice garrison assignments and the lion's share of promotion. If they closed ranks, it was less on account of an instinctive loyalty to a general staff which deserved little sympathy and a church to which they were largely indifferent, than a reaction to the violent attacks of the Dreyfusards. It must be said that while Bredin serves up a full measure of the venomous onslaughts of the preposterous anti- Dreyfusard Paul Drumont, nowhere are we given a hint of the equally intemperate assaults of the anti-militarists, like Urbain Gohier, upon the army.

In the end, however, it is upon Dreyfus himself that Bredin concentrates his attention, again a departure from other authors for whom the affair dwarfs the man around whom it was fought. Stiff, aloof, private, utterly lacking in the Thespian qualities required to play the part which destiny had assigned him, Dreyfus was both an enigma and a disappointment to his supporters -- when Cl,menceau first saw the man for whose rehabilitation he had so long fought, he thought he looked like a pencil salesman. Emotional crowds struggled to press his hand, only to hear him croak "merci."

Dreyfus remained a conservative rescued by radicals, the soldier who never lost faith in the military hierarchy which had persecuted him, a convict who continued to believe that the injustice done to him was not built into the system but simply a case of bad luck. For Bredin, Dreyfus demonstrates the essential unity of Frenchmen. He stood as a symbol for a quarrel concerned more with power than principle, argued out among people who shared the same basic patriotic values, and who were able, in 1914, to march arm in arm against a common foe. Perhaps he is correct. But one senses in Bredin's attempts to deemphasize the fundamental divisions of the Dreyfus era a neo-socialist appeal to the French left to shed the historical baggage of l'affaire, to de-mythologize the past, to let bygones be bygones. If such sentiments free French scholarship from the shackles of inherited prejudice and produce books of this brilliance, then let them flourish.