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Tremendous Tuesday Book Group

Sunday 19th Jan 2014

Lucinda Corby

Tremendous Tuesday Book Group

Tremendous Tuesday Book Group – Tuesday 14th January


Everyone in the group said that they felt it was worth reading this account of the Dreyfus Affair – even those with more than a smattering of knowledge about French post-revolutionary history learnt much. Being such a significant incident, paving the way for social change and reflecting the instability of European states that would lead to war, this study of an outrageous miscarriage of justice provoked much discussion. In short, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew in the French army was accused and convicted of being a traitor and passing secret intelligence to the Germans. His sentence was to be exiled to Devil’s Island – a bleak and inhospitable part of French Guiana. The counterfeit evidence that was used to convict him was later brought to light – but not until Alfred had served 5 years in the penal colony, and he was only formally pardoned in 1906 – 11 years after conviction.

We talked about the level of division apparent between different regions of France, e.g Brittany vs Alsace – with the inference being that those Frenchmen hailing from close to the border with Germany, were somehow less patriotic, less French. There was also a strong sentiment that the French enlightenment – far from being objective – was in fact being viewed as an entirely religious conceit, a protestant/Jewish conception designed to weaken the Catholic movement.

We also spent a while discussing the notion of duty – something us Anglo-Saxons never quite got our heads around. The idea that reputation would outweigh life, that individuals would sacrifice their lives so that their name would not be forever tarnished; that they would rather a wife was a widow with an honourable name than had a husband with scandal attached was an important element of Dreyfus’ story. Without his own strong sense of honour, he might not have so placidly been scapegoated by the very country that he called his own. Dreyfus accepting a pardon – something that divided his supporters – was inscrutable to us.

So, to the book itself. Piers Paul Read decides to open his book with a section specifically devoted to providing historical context to the events. We are given a whistle-stop tour of the decline of Catholic power – how religion is seen as corrupting, schools as places where young minds can be indoctrinated, where suspicion of ulterior motives is seen everywhere. Some in the group said that they might have preferred the contextual information to have been woven into the Dreyfus story rather than being set out at the beginning. We all agreed though, that the writing was good: a natural storytelling style and we all loved the fact that rather than just focusing on Dreyfus, Piers Paul Read gives significant back stories to all the main protagonists in the affair.

We were all disturbed by the level of anti-semitic comment that was allowed in the French press at the time, and the way in which those people who had some stake in seeing Dreyfus stay marked with the tag of traitor were allowed to manipulate the justice system. We were also shocked by the way in which Dreyfus became a political pawn – those who had a leading role in his conviction e.g. Armand du Paty de Clam, suddenly had too much to lose by simply renouncing their accusations and so the snowball was allowed to gather momentum. This led (naturally) onto a discussion of whether we are living in more civilised times and whether miscarriages of justice of this magnitude aren’t still capable of happening (Guantanamo Bay was mentioned as an example of detainment without proper examination of evidence).

Piers Paul Read makes much of the fact that he is Jewish and aims to be as objective as possible about the part anti-semitism played in the affair. We all agreed that he does a reasonable job of painting Alfred as an outsider regardless of his religious beliefs. He is introverted and prickly – unlike his brother Mathieu, his charismatic and dogged campaigner. It was also noted that the French press did not vilify Alfred’s wife, Lucie – she remained an image of a dutiful and unfortunate wife throughout the proceedings and was never tarnished with the ‘traitor’ mark assigned to her husband. We debated whether this was because, as a woman, she held no real power and therefore was not seen as a danger to the army elite.

Overall, it was a lively debate – and it seemed to put everyone in the mood for another informative and rewarding read (some are inspired to read further and are now tackling Ruth Harris’ account ‘The Man on Devil’s Island, which is heavily referenced in ‘The Dreyfus Affair’). Back to fiction – but with another significant moment in European history in its sights…this time, the Spanish Civil War. We will be discussing ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway on Tuesday 25th February at 7pm.

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