Books About the Dreyfus Affair

I think I may have come up with a new (albeit irregular) feature for this blog, one that holds cross-over appeal for my other blog (on writing and publishing). And it’s this: Every so often, I should come up with a short list of books that I’ve read and would recommend on a given literary-historical topic. (And as far as this blog is concerned, if it’s a Jewish-literary-historical topic, so much the better!)

Let us begin with books about the Dreyfus Affair (named for its ill-fated victim, Captain Alfred Dreyfus). And that’s because ever since I found out (via Josh Lambert) that a new novel connected with this major episode in world/French/Jewish history will be on shelves soon–Susan Daitch’s Paper Conspiracies–I’ve been recalling other books that I’ve read and remember that are also embedded in this material.

A bit of background: While earning my Ph.D. in Modern French history, I prepared a “special field” for my general examinations in French literature, and within that area, I focused on political literature. It was during that period in my studies that I dove into the literature surrounding the Dreyfus Affair, among other événements. I was lucky to work with some wonderful faculty on this project, including the brilliant Susan Suleiman, whose article “The Literary Significance of the Dreyfus Affair” (in Norman L. Kleeblatt, ed., The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth and Justice, [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987], pp. 117-139) is a must-read for anyone interested in this subject.

I will add, too, that whenever I am in France and need to introduce myself, and my listeners appear to have trouble understanding me (my spoken French is not up to the level anyone might hope or expect), I say, “Dreifus, comme le capitaine.” That usually does the trick.

So here are a few titles to which I remain attached. I’m thrilled to have discovered English translations that are freely available online (print or audio), and have linked to them as appropriate.

Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935)
Cinq années de ma vie
translated as Five Years of My Life

There are history books. There are novels. But many people seem unaware of any nonfiction beyond Emile Zola’s famous J’Accuse! editorial.

Among the relevant texts that I’ve read, I favor Captain Dreyfus’s own chronicle of his experience. He wasn’t the most gifted writer to grace our planet–but the rawness of his account somehow adds to its power. The included correspondence with his wife, Lucie, is especially heartbreaking.

Anatole France (1844-1924)
L’Ile des pingouins
translated as Penguin Island

In this allegory, “Penguin Island” stands in for the French nation. And you should know that only one section (albeit one long section) of this satirical, fictional “history” deals with the Dreyfus Affair (transmogrified, here, into “The Affair of the 80,000 Trusses of Hay”).

Anatole France, the 1921 Nobel laureate in literature, wrote another fictional work, Monsieur Bergeret à Paris, which I understand also deals with L’Affaire. I have yet to read that one.

Emile Zola (1840-1902)
translated as Truth

This novel–first published the year after Zola’s death–isn’t an easy read. It’s lengthy (my French copy was published in two volumes). At times, it’s clunky. It isn’t my favorite Zola novel.

But it is remarkable for its transposition of the Dreyfus Affair–an historical episode in which Zola played such a key role–into a fictional story, very close to the time of the actual events that inspired them. Central characters and themes of the Dreyfus Affair are mapped onto a new plot, one in which a Jewish schoolteacher is accused (wrongly) of and scapegoated for brutality toward a child.

(NB: For basic background and/or teaching purposes, consider Michael Burns, The Dreyfus Affair: A Brief Documentary History)

Any suggestions about future topics for this feature? Please leave a comment and let me know! Merci beaucoup!

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