A luscious bonbon of pop history. Elegantly designed, from its typography (in Sabon, since you ask: the book has a colophon, of course) to its deckle-edge pages, cover design and tasteful choice of illustrations. The signatures in my copy were glued a little too tightly and I sometimes had to tear at them a little to open the book out flat, but this just adds to its Craftsman elegance. I came across only two typos or misspellings. I like to think these were due to the overconfidence of the book editors who, presented with an electronic ms. in what looked like immaculate prose, didn't bother with copy editors and proofreaders, and just zipped it off to the print shop in Lancaster, PA.
Frederick Brown's last books were biographies were acclaimed biographies of Zola and Flaubert. His love for the era fill his narrative with a warm glow. Here he has set himself a trickier subject. This is not the story of a single author finding his voice and battling his critics, or a rhapsody about the greatness of French culture, but an investigation of a proud national civilization in midlife crisis, when a lot of ugly things were said and done.
The most useful parts of the book are the chapters about the Union Generale bank, the Panama Scandal, and the soap-bubble-like political enthusiasm for General Boulanger. These were the hot crises of the "peaceful" decade of the 1880s. I've read about them before, but always found my eyes glazing over. Momentous events and sparkling personalities, yes; but there are just too many of them. Brown handles them all with entertaining concision.
The heart of the book, unsurprisingly, is the section on the Dreyfus Affair. For most people this has always been an infernal puzzlement. Many of the basic facts are still unknown, largely because most of the principal players lied like troupers. We've all learned the baby-talk version: Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a colorless nobody, is accused of espionage; convicted and exiled to the legendary Devil's Island for four long years; but finally revealed to be the victim of a cruel conspiracy by the fire-breathing anti-Semites of the French officer corps and Catholic hierarchy.
Brown's patient unfurling of the tale makes it clear that the Affair was never really about Dreyfus himself, or his guilt or innocence. The leftist and anti-clerical "Dreyfusards" found the case a convenient club for taunting and whacking their political enemies. Almost from the start, they used the foreign press to sound the alarm that the French Army and Church had connived to railroad an innocent man because he was a Jew. Infuriated by this international propaganda war, the "anti-Dreyfusards" fell into the ambush and circled the wagons. They fell over themselves to defend the conviction even when a cursory review of the facts suggested that there were other, bigger spies than Dreyfus and there was a good chance Dreyfus himself was innocent. Secret dossiers were passed around, new notes were forged and "discovered," and the ministry of defense seemed to condone it all: this was war, after all. Even Col. Picquart, head of military intelligence, found himself transferred to Algeria when he found the forgeries and tried to prove that Dreyfus was innocent.
Brown tries hard to seem scrupulously fair. However he appears to have skipped some basic research. For example: he tells us that Dreyfus's handwriting bore no resemblance to the script on the "bordereau" (the original incriminating document that got Dreyfus sent to Devil's Island). But really the two hands look very much alike. As indeed they also resemble the handwriting of Major Esterhazy, the "real" spy. Anyone can compare samples in various places on the internet, but you won't find them reproduced here. This is a glaring omission. It was these handwriting samples that convicted Dreyfus. You really have to see how closely they resemble each other to understand how anyone believed in poor old Dreyfus's guilt in the first place.