The Dreyfus Affair: ‘J’Accuse’ and Other Writings 
by Emile Zola, edited by Alain Pagès, translated by Eleanor Levieux.
Yale, 208 pp., £25, June 1996, 0 300 06689 9
Show More
Zola: A Life 
by Frederick Brown.
Farrar, Straus, 888 pp., £37.50, May 1996, 0 374 29742 8
Show More
Show More

In September 1894, the Intelligence Bureau of the French Army intercepted a memorandum (the so-called ‘bordereau’) sent to the German military attaché in Paris, informing him that important details concerning French national defence would shortly be communicated to the Germans. The military authorities were baffled as to the source, but suspicion fell on Captain Alfred Dreyfus, at the time serving in a probationary capacity on the General Staff. The ‘bordereau’ was submitted secretly to handwriting experts, the first expressing doubts that it was by Dreyfus, the second (Bertillon, the inventor of anthropometry, a system for identifying criminals on the basis of an inherent ‘criminality’) concluding in connivance with the authorities that it was indeed in Dreyfus’s hand. Arrested, tried, found guilty of treason, publicly stripped of military office and sentenced to both deportation and life imprisonment, Dreyfus was sent to French Guiana and from there to Devil’s Island.

It was because Dreyfus was a Jew that the trumped-up charge of treason was entwined with racism. In part this was a replay of a centuries-old scenario of anti-semitic scapegoating. But it also had a new context in a 19th-century history that produced a formal theory of ‘race’ in alliance with the values of nationalism, and it was this particular conjunction that made the Affair such an explosive one, widening the fault-lines and divisions of the Third Republic and its major institutions.

The most famous of those who believed Dreyfus to be innocent and campaigned for his release was Emile Zola, and the most famous of his many journalistic interventions (gathered in The Dreyfus Affair along with interviews and private letters written in voluntary exile in 1898-9) was ‘J’accuse’, the open letter he addressed to Félix Faure, President of the Republic. Zola was fully conscious of his role as public intellectual, citing the precedent of Victor Hugo: ‘If such an odious deed had been done in Hugo’s time, he would have thundered with the voice of justice and defended the people’s rights.’ Zola, too, thunders, passionately, magisterially, amid the clamour of the populists, liars, opportunists, cowards and charlatans who crowded the public stage of the Affair.

The republication of the legendary letter, together with the documents that surrounded it invites reflection on what it meant to be a public intellectual in late 19th-century France. Obviously it meant, among other things, speaking in the name of Justice. But in Zola’s mind the issue soon transcended the orchestration of a campaign to secure the release of an innocent man. To speak of Justice was to speak in the name of the Republic, and of the great historical experience which gave birth to it, the Revolution. This is Zola’s key move, for example, in his address to the jury at the time of his own trial for libel in connection with the publication of ‘J’accuse’ (the guilty verdict was the cause of his removal to England):

By now, gentlemen, the Dreyfus Affair is a very minor matter, very remote and very blurred, compared to the terrifying questions it has raised. There is no Dreyfus Affair any longer. There is only one issue: is France still the France of the Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the France which gave the world liberty, and was supposed to give it justice?

This is the Republican language of law and rights, and in speaking it, Zola became, temporarily, an outlaw and a fugitive. The title itself, ‘J’accuse’, is redolent of the discourse of the Revolutionary tribunal, of Robespierre and Fouquier-Tinville.

The public sphere in the later 19th century was decisively influenced by new forms of publicity, crucially the mass-circulation press. The role of journalism in the making of public opinion also has a Revolutionary lineage. But a hundred years on, its scale and power had changed in ways that Marat would not have recognised. Zola himself was a journalist – he mainly reported Parliamentary proceedings – before he became a novelist, and he remained a journalist off and on for most of his career. The experience generated habits and methods that carried over into his fiction-writing and are most evident in his fervent commitment to the factual background of his fictions. Zola also profited handsomely from his journalistic work, and this is not an incidental matter in so far as the relation between press, publicity and public sphere, while associated with notions of democracy, also grafted the values of the marketplace onto the more high-minded civic ideals of classical Republicanism.

Zola was implicated, more or less unselfconsciously, in the phenomenon of newspapers as commodities, just as he was a master at exploiting the commercial possibilities of the novel as bestseller, which makes the courage and disinterestedness of his interventions over the Dreyfus Affair all the more striking, and also in part explains his sense of shock at what the new public sphere looked like when commercial interests were served by the fanning of mass hysteria. If the newspaper was the medium for Zola as a public intellectual, it was also one of his principal themes. In an article for the Figaro entitled ‘Democracy’, he had praised the modern press as an instrument of democratic enfranchisement: ‘Vulgar though it may be, the press accomplishes a useful task; it is the avant-garde of democracy, it makes reading commonplace and enlarges our public. I know that this enlarged public is precisely what vexes retired literati and young aesthetes. But why should we tremble before a clientèle composed of the entire nation?’ It wasn’t long before he was to speak quite differently: ‘we have seen the gutter press in heat, making a profit out of sick minds, driving the public mad for the sake of selling its drivel ... The foul press has perverted the nation’; it has done so by ‘feeding the nation a poisonous diet of lies’.

The poison was anti-semitism, and it involved not just Dreyfus’s alleged treachery but also the widely disseminated claim that the campaign for his release was a Jewish plot backed by Jewish gold. While Zola’s targets are manifold (the Army High Command, the press and Parliamentarians), the deeper threat is the cancer of racism spreading through the social and political body: ‘this whole lamentable Dreyfus Affair is the work of anti-semitism: it and it alone made the miscarriage of justice possible; it and it alone.’ The text contains some of Zola’s most powerful and coruscating prose. Yet its very power implicitly raises a number of questions concerning the positions from which it was possible in the later 19th century to speak in this way. Flaubert’s expression for the rhetoric of moral denunciation was tonner contre. The irony did not signal hostility as such to righteous indignation: rather it questioned whether it was any longer possible to thunder in good faith, on the grounds that the mechanisms and idioms to hand had all been incorporated by the very public sphere within and against which one might wish to voice opposition.

Zola’s outrage is thus not without its blind spots. For example, to unmask injustice and prejudice in the name of the Republic and the Revolution is to overlook the historical link between the Revolution and the development of nationalism. In other words, for all the ideological complexity of the Revolutionary heritage, it could be argued that the Dreyfus Affair was in some ways continuous with, rather than a violation of, that heritage. Zola seemed dimly aware of this, in so far as his attack encompasses both Left and Right (he is unflinching in his denunciation of ‘a lying, hypocritical socialism’ and ‘revolutionaries of the worst kind’): but he does not see that ‘Republican virtue’ itself might have played a part in spawning the monsters he most feared. There is also much naivety, notably in the appeal to the ‘youth’ of France to contemplate the glorious future which the Revolutionary legacy guaranteed the Republic once the anti-Dreyfusard virus was eliminated. (As I write, the authorities of the Fifth Republic are still debating whether to open up to the ‘public’ what successive governments – in particular, the regime of François Mitterrand – have kept under wraps as France’s dirty secret: the archives of French collaboration in the Holocaust.)

Moreover, in so far as the monster was the progeny of the union of chauvinism and race, there is the vexed matter of the relation between Zola’s moral stand over the Dreyfus Affair and the informing presuppositions of his fiction. Pagès invites us to connect the journalism with the world of the novels, remarking that the ‘roots’ of Zola’s repudiation of anti-semitism ‘go deep into his work’. Yet the language of biology, which in the second half of the 19th century furnished race-theory with its intellectual credentials, is to be found everywhere in the novels of the Rougon-Macquart series. This is not to say that Zola was a covert racist but rather that his own view of what drives society derives in several respects from the same sources that produced modern racism. In ‘A Plea for the Jews’ Zola defines anti-semitism as ‘a centuries-old atavism’, while the goal of civilisation ‘is precisely to erase that savage need to hurl ourselves at our fellow creature, when he does not resemble us exactly. Down through the centuries, the history of the peoples of this earth is nothing other than a lesson in mutual tolerance.’ But it is not at all clear that this is the ‘lesson’ of the Rougon-Macquart. Time and again, Zola’s plots turn on manifestations of ‘atavism’, on eruptions of the ‘savage need’ to destroy, and they do so in terms that imply a biologically-given, and thus irremediable, condition.

Liberal pieties about tolerance, justice and the rule of law have little purchase on Zola’s vision of man as radically vulnerable to barbaric regression. Jules Lemaître attached to the Rougon-Macquart the tag ‘l’épopée pessimiste de l’animalité humaine’. A title such as La Bête humaine is a token of this reduction to the organic and instinctual. Closer to the specific realities of the Dreyfus Affair, there is also an alarming reference in the novel about the Franco-Prussian war, La Débâcle, to ‘those prowlers who followed the German armies to rob the corpses, a pack of base, preying Jews’. Pagès does not mention this, but, curiously, his translator does, pointing out in an appended note that the reference is disturbingly ambiguous: it seems to be delivered in free indirect style, relativised to a point of view within the novel, but one cannot safely conclude that Zola is not an accomplice in the point of view he stages.

The same can be said of L’Argent, the novel that engages most explicitly with the theme of anti-semitism. The anti-Jewish ranting of its hero, Saccard, is by no means securely distanced from the voice of the narrator. More generally, the impeccable sentiments of Zola’s writings on the Affair are not necessarily a reliable guide to the underlying logic of the novels. Georg Lukács said that Balzac was a novelist with reactionary views and progressive ‘tendencies’. Zola is a novelist with progressive views and reactionary tendencies.

It is not clear what, if anything, the private correspondence included in Pagès’s volume contributes to our understanding of Zola’s involvement in the Affair. Pagès is surely guilty of a loss of perspective when he writes of the experience of exile: ‘Zola, too, felt lost in a universe that deprived him of all his familiar landmarks; he thought the cooking detestable and could not understand how sash windows worked’ – which scarcely adds up to serious existential dislocation. There are moments of connection to, or rather disconnection from, the Affair in which the personal and the political mesh. A letter to Fernand Labori towards the end of 1898, for example, confesses to a sentiment of impotence and exhaustion: ‘I am in a weary mood. I am weary of peace and safety. You cannot imagine the anguish I feel each morning as I read the papers. I have the feeling I’m not the slightest use anymore; I’m a dead man, while the others continue to fight.’ But many of the private letters are devoted to trivia (requests for clothes) or to the management of his domestic life: how to get his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, and their two children to England, while endeavouring to keep his wife, Alexandrine, moderately happy.

This is the stuff of biography and Frederick Brown trawls through it in considerable detail. In this 888-page Life, he does the same with almost everything that catches his attention. There is indeed not much one can say about the book, for the reason that it itself has so much to say. Brown has researched his topic meticulously and written up his research in an engagingly sharp and snappy style that manages to sustain momentum across the vast expanse of text. One’s scepticism therefore is directed not to his performance, but to the genre itself. The point of a biography of a great writer is to tell us something that will illuminate the writings. But, perversely, this requirement tends to make a biography pointless. ‘Je suis un homme-plume,’ Flaubert once wrote. What, then, would be the story of the ‘life’ of a man-pen? The standard biographies of Flaubert tend to evade this question, presumably because a story confined to Flaubert honing his sentences as he paced up and down in his Croisset retreat would be no ‘story’ at all.

Zola was an ‘homme-plume’ in a different sense, not so much eremitic as entrepreneurial, an active player in the contemporary literary marketplace. The terms of that involvement are therefore relevant to understanding the kind of writer he was, and the many pages Brown devotes to Zola’s relations with his publisher, Charpentier, are genuinely helpful, as are the sections on Zola’s work as a journalist. But the threshold of relevance seems to be the same for those facets of the ‘life’ which cannot be seen in the same way. The catalogue of Zola’s furniture at his country home in Médan (at once solidly bourgeois and wildly eclectic) might just count as a footnote to a cultural history of taste in the late 19th century, but the details of his house-hunting in Surrey are of no conceivable value to anything that, as readers of Zola, we might find ourselves usefully thinking about.

Similarly, the narrative conventions of the genre (basically those of the family-novel) ensure that the story cannot be brought to an end until the main dramatis personae have met theirs. One should perhaps not cavil at the account of the dark and mysterious circumstances of Zola’s death (by asphyxiation from a fuel-burning stove, perhaps the work of anti-Dreyfusards). But what are we to make of the very last sentences of Brown’s biography (in a chapter called ‘Epilogue’): ‘Alexandrine survived her [Jeanne] 11 years, despite the respiratory problems for which she continued to seek relief at Mont-Doré in the Auvergne. Always attentive to Zola’s reputation, she died in 1925 at the age of 86’. Who cares about Alexandrine’s respiratory problems or the age at which she died? What we care about is Zola’s novels. And here Brown’s book is useless, being punctuated by inordinately long plot summaries. It is difficult to imagine what their purpose is. Those of us who have read (some of) the novels have no need of them. But it is equally unclear what need could be served for those who have not (would you want a plot summary of a novel before reading it?). The assumption appears to be that this is a book for those who want to read about the ‘life’ but have no desire to read the novels. If so, this can only confirm our worst suspicions about the proliferating genre of literary biography.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 18 No. 18 · 19 September 1996

Christopher Prendergast asks (LRB, 5 September), à propos Flaubert, what the life-story of ‘un homme-plume’ would be. Fascinating, I‘d say, if it were a true sentence-by-sentence account, on the lines pioneered years ago by the Monty Python commentary on Thomas Hardy wrestling with the opening words of (was it?) Return of the Native.

Neil Forster
London N1

Vol. 18 No. 19 · 3 October 1996

Christopher Prendergast (LRB, 5 September) is unnecessarily snooty about ‘the proliferating genre of literary biography’. In response to his question ‘Would you want a plot summary of a novel before reading it?’ I raise my hand. I remember as a small child being told, by a slightly older child who had just seen the play, the complete plot of Hamlet – ghost, murders, Ophelia, fencing match, poisoned cup, everything. I was fascinated and have remained so.

As for Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life (which Prendergast was reviewing), it was a great help to me in preparing a literature class on Germinal this year. It would have been a better book at half the length. But one can skip. We do not all have at our fingertips the knowledge displayed by Brown of the year-by-year development of the political, economic, social and artistic history of France in the 19th century. I find most novels easier to enjoy when set in their historical context. To return to plot summaries, I have read only two other Zola novels; but, having read Brown, I shall read more.

Robin Hope
Todi, Italy

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences