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For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus Paperback – Feb 8 2011
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“Vivacious and fluid. . . . Visitors to the City of Light, and Parisians themselves, may never look at the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur quite the same way again. . . . Brown’s storytelling is vivacious and fluid, but he also keeps a firm hand on his chronicle, bringing order and perspective to these often chaotic times. . . . For the Soul of France offers a great deal of instruction and many narrative pleasures (even for a French reader).”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A wonderful book. . . . Learned. . . . Vivid. . . . Consistently instructive.”
—The New Republic
“Brown has the rare ability to write reliable and well-researched history for a broad nonspecialized public. Francophiles, in particular, will love this book.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A lucid, piercing portrait. . . . These events still resonate, and Brown shows they stand as powerfully as any structure in iron or stone.”
“Terrific. . . . A brilliant study.”
—The Boston Globe
“For the Soul of France is masterful history, brilliantly researched, and hard to put down.”
—Henry A. Kissinger
“[A] sweeping reevaluation of late-nineteenth-century France. . . . In less than 300 pages, Brown brings together a host of characters who have themselves spawned thick biographies—Napoléon III, Gustave Eiffel, Alfred Dreyfus—along with others less known today outside France.”
“More than a century on, the Dreyfus affair still holds important lessons about freedom, notably the fragility of basic liberties when national security is invoked. It is also a reminder of the deep roots of anti-Semitism, in France and beyond.”
“A fine work. . . . Brisk and readable. . . . Brown is a historian who believes that things actually happened in history, and he has one interest: telling the story. . . . Truly worth reading.”
“The search for national identity reverberates through [For the Soul of France] so compellingly that even hardened Francophobes may appreciate the passion and prejudices inflaming a country whose contradictory instincts for grandeur and provincialism seemed limitless during the 19th century.”
“Brown, a distinguished cultural historian, gives us the story in riveting detail, moving an interesting human cavalcade across the precariously turbulent political stage that was fin de siècle France.”
—History Book Club
“Nobody outside France writes better about French history and culture in the late 19th Century than Frederick Brown. . . . For the Soul of France is an epic piece of history on a grand scale, full of deeply disturbing resemblances to our own.”
—Michael Korda, author of With Wings Like Eagles
“After Napoleon III fell in 1870, the stakes were high in France: The form of government, the church’s role, the structure of the economy were all in flux. Brown lays it all out masterfully.”
—The Montreal Gazette
“Richly illustrated. . . . An important work of cultural and intellectual history.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“A very good example of cultural history. It suggests that even in the heyday of bourgeois materialism, the most important, and often decisive, matter was what large groups of people preferred to think and believe. His episodes are well-selected, and their developments well-written.”
—John Lukacs, author of Budapest 1900
About the Author
Frederick Brown is the author of Flaubert, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and Zola, named an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. Brown has twice been the recipient of both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. He lives in New York City.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Here is the saga of France's sojourn from Monarchy to Republic. The French revolution may have begun in 1789 but it was fought well into the twentieth century. The author picks up the tale at the Franco Prussian War in 1870. He gives us the events that shaped France into the country we now see; but what a convoluted, tortured trip it has been. It's a miracle the Third Republic survived with attacks from left and right, economic disasters, and revolving door Premiers. As France struggled through failed governments and the demi-gods who threatened, she constantly searched for a scapegoat. The Catholic Church and the Germans took their fair share of hits but the old standby, Jewry, bears the brunt of the attack.
There will always be those who refuse to give up the past, praying for the return of a monarch or an emperor, insisting on France for the French. Luckily there were also those who challenged the old ways and the old religion and fought for free, secular education. Thiers, Clemenceau & Zola fought to build the Republic. The conservatives and royalists reawakened the symbol of Joan of Arc. Eiffel's tower sits in juxtaposition to Sacre Coeur. On one side the growth of technology and scientific thought. On the hill in Montmartre France's penance for the sins heaped upon her by the church.
Read this book because you'll see the frightening similarities to the first ten years of the 21st century. There are all the lies, finger-pointing, invented evidence we've seen since 2000. There's a lion's share of yellow journalism. Fear is the weapon of choice. Sadly, it's all accepted by those who were taught to think, but didn't.
This is certainly the quickest, most readable history you'll find. Be prepared to think, to reason and come to your own determination because this book is not about the Soul of France, it's merely setting you off on the search for it.
Frederick Brown is a good writer with an excellent grasp of the various stories he spins in this book, such as the funding scandal surrounding the Panama Canal, the building of Eiffel's tower, and, importantly, that of the ill-fated Captain Dreyfus.
"For the Soul of France" reminds one that the current "cultural wars" within the United States are somewhat tame compared to the deep chasms dividing the population of 19th century France.
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.
Despite my fondness for one or two chanteuses, I have never been particularly intrigued by post-Revolutionary French domestic history (excepting Napoleon and his tumultuous era) because I have found trying to follow the ebb's and flow's of the various regimes, up to and including to the present day, not really worth the effort. The royals may have been despotic by definition but at least they possessed a facially consistent claim to legitimacy and internal symmetry as evidenced by the fact that a very considerable part of the population never fell out of love with the idea of them, if not their earthly embodiments. But one has to admit that the French are a beguiling bunch, even as they defy comprehension, and so I took a chance on this book because of its stated premise. After all, there is nothing in French history more difficult to get a handle on than how it unfolded in the nineteenth century. And, with Ms. Piaf, I have no regrets.
Author Brown does an absolutely superb job of portraying the social and religious atmospheres of the time and the ever-roiling tensions between `secular republicans' and the generally religious-oriented monarchists. As noted by other reviewers, his succinct descriptions of the era's two principal public scandals, the Union Generale and the Panama Canal fiasco, are models of historical story-telling, as is his account of the Dreyfus Affair which was the logical, arguably inevitable, culmination of the period's events and serves as the coda of this excellent work. Eiffel, de Lesseps, Boulanger, Clemenceau, MacMahon, Zola, the reformers and those badly in need of reform, are all present and adroitly accounted for as Brown recounts his tale. And I must admit I found the enterprise both illuminating and a complete pleasure to read.
The author is a word composer of exceptional skill. He writes like a fine athlete strides: forceful yet restrained, purposeful yet elegant, altogether obviously knowing where he's going and how he's going to get there. And he wields his manifestly impressive vocabulary as a scalpel rather than a sword. Have your dictionary at your elbow and delight in exploring words you either never acquired or have forgotten.
In sum, a terrific read that, and I'm reluctant to say this, might just encourage me to pay more attention to the history of those arcane Frenchmen rather than only their songs.
Like the French Revolution from which the issue "went viral", the contest between science and spirituality becomes tangled with issues of governance (monarchists, republicans, etc.) and with personal ambitions, which, certainly in this telling, tend to be driven by opportunity more than ideology or principle.
The book does not pretend to be an exhaustive chronicle of 'fin de siecle' France, but instead uses broad strokes to paint a portrait of an age undergoing shifts and swings in mass consciousness and political power. It is not a very pretty sight, and few heroes emerge from Brown's tale.
The story is sometimes framed around public monuments such as the statue of Joan of Arc at the place des Pyramides (1874), the Sacre-Coeur (begun in 1875, it wouldn't be finished until 1914), or the iconic Eiffel Tower (1889). As Brown quotes a contemporary Frenchman, the Eiffel Tower is, "a monumental political argument" (pg.124). Well, it seems everything else was, too.
Brown tells us how the Union Generale (1889-92), a financial institution associated with Roman Catholics, and the secular Panama Canal Company (1880-90), after flourishing briefly as a result of widespread enthusiasm, both collapsed miserably as a result of gross mismanagement with great loss to many.
The Dreyfus Affair certainly takes center stage for much of the book, and it suits the author's apparent purpose of exposing the dark side of the cultural wars (including deeply rooted anti-Semitism, a prejudice shared by some on either side of the debate). As the book winds down there is a distinct feeling of cynicism and fatigue.
As we all know, the forces of modernity ground forward (for both good and ill). In France (as elsewhere in Europe) the ordeal was perhaps exhausting, leading people to seek other outlets for identity and community. Towards the end of the book Brown quotes Maurice Barres (on August 4, 1914 upon the declaration of war with Germany), "... I've wanted nothing more than for Frenchmen to unite around the great ideas of our race. So they have. Blood has not yet rained upon our nation and war has already made us [at the Assembly] feel its regenerative powers. It is a resurrection." (pg. 265).
About 1.3 million Frenchmen would die in the war, and that grind could only lead to more cynicism and fatigue.
Read this book if you get the chance.