Frederick Brown begins this book with a quote from the papers of Émile Zola, in which he instructed himself to "study and dramatize the endless duel between science and the longing for supernatural intervention." Just as that struggle marked the fiction of Zola, it was the theme of French history in the last third of the 19th-Century, dominating all aspects of the country's social, political, and cultural life. In FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE, Frederick Brown chronicles this continuous conflict between reason (natural science and historical criticism) and faith (especially that demanded by the Roman Catholic Church and that invested in primitive nationalism, whether inspired by the monarchy or by Jeanne d'Arc).
Along the way, the reader encounters various historical figures of note, among them Pope Pius IX, Léon Gambetta, Jules Ferry, Eugéne Bontoux, Georges Boulanger, Gustave Eiffel, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and - of course - Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola. Among the significant events or episodes of French history covered in the book are the Paris Commune, the rise and fall of the Union Générale, the Panama Canal scandal, and the Dreyfus Affair. I personally was not as familiar with these matters as I wanted to be, and FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge in a non-pedantic fashion.
In reading the book, I was repeatedly and particularly struck by two things: One, the parallels between right-wing, religiously-imbued French demagoguery and tomfoolery (of which Georges Boulanger and the Boulangists may be the prime example) and contemporary American political phenomena, such as the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. Second, I was struck by the pervasiveness and virulence of anti-Semitism in France of the late 1800s, aggressively encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church. (Of the Dreyfus Affair, a Vatican organ commented: "the Jewish race, the deicide people, wandering throughout the world, brings with it everywhere the pestiferous breath of treason, [so in the Dreyfus case] it is hardly surprising if we again find the Jew in the front ranks, or if we find that the betrayal of one's country has been Jewishly conspired and Jewishly executed.")
Brown writes well, though at times the book borders on being over-written, too showy and too baroque. Here's an example, in which Brown summarizes the opposition to the Eiffel tower: "For aesthetes, Eiffel's tower was the grotesque child of the industrial age, desecrating a museological city. For Catholics, it was the sport of revolutionary Nimrods expounding their secularism in Notre-Dame's parish with phallic arrogance. And for nationalist zealots, * * * the wrought-iron tower incommensurate with everything else in Paris was a tyrannical mutant, a foreigner lording it over the French past and future, a cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of `Israel.'"
FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE is an instructive work of social, cultural, and political history. For those already knowledgeable about France of the late 1800s and the Dreyfus Affair, it probably will not add very much. For me, however, it was well worth my time, though not quite a five-star book.