The Dreyfus Affair: The Real Story by Robert Harris

The Dreyfus Affair: The Real Story by Robert Harris

Only when Roman Polanski asked me to take a look at the story to see if there might be a movie in it did I make an effort to deepen my knowledge. And then, very quickly, I was hooked.

What I hadn’t realised was that, at its heart, the affair was a spy story – a black jewel of a tale of stolen documents, listening posts, clandestine meetings in foreign hotels, secret love affairs, double-agents, surveillance photographs . . . I began to grasp that, far from being irrelevant, the Dreyfus affair was actually the first great espionage scandal of the modern age – an international sensation that was only made possible by the arrival of mass-circulation newspapers, telegraphy, telephones, photography, railways and motor cars.

The image of a cleaning lady strolling out of the German Embassy week after week with the torn-up secret correspondence of the Kaiser’s military attaché was like an episode from the Cold War. Indeed, the group of paranoid, right-wing counter-espionage officers to whom she delivered her material, gathered in the decaying headquarters of the Statistical Section, reminded me of nothing so much as MI5 in the early 1970s, convinced that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a Soviet spy. As for the conspiracy and cover-up which followed – here was a pattern that would be repeated eighty years later when America was convulsed by Watergate.

But it was above all the figure of Colonel Georges Picquart who made me want to turn the material into a novel. I had never come across his name before. Yet without Picquart, there would have been no Dreyfus affair. I located his apartment in Paris and studied it on a satellite photograph. I imagined him walking south across the River Seine to the War Ministry each day. He intrigued me as a character – intellectually brilliant, amusing, chilly, solitary: in his own way as much an outsider as Dreyfus. It fascinated me that such an ambitious man, perfectly happy to spout the same kind of anti-Semitic remarks as his brother-officers, should, when the chips were down, be unable to stomach the idea of the real spy going unpunished while an innocent man rotted in the tropics. The way that he uncovered the truth, confronted his superiors, and then was willing to suffer the consequences – to the extent of serving more than a year in solitary confinement – struck me as true heroism. He, too, was a modern figure: a whistle-blower – one of the first and perhaps the greatest there has ever been.

After a couple of months, I reported back to Polanski that there was indeed a movie in the Dreyfus affair – a spy thriller in fact – but that I wanted to write it as a novel. I wanted to make that journey with Picquart from his flat to his office each day, imagining what was going on in his head – to enter into his mind and to see his world through his eyes as, step by step, he began to work out what had happened to Dreyfus. Of course, there is much to be said for films as a means of telling a story. But nothing can substitute for the power of the interior monologue as it whispers into a reader’s ear and works on the imagination.

It is the longest of my novels, yet it was also one of the quickest to complete – six months from the opening sentence to the last – and the most enjoyable to work on.

My greatest concern was to avoid its becoming a costume drama, a stately re-enactment of something that had already happened. I needed it to be true to the facts, which meant that it had to be complex and detailed, yet I also wanted it to be a gripping narrative. Accordingly, I made the three decisions which made An Officer and a Spy what it is.

First, I decided to treat Dreyfus’s conviction as a kind of crime or puzzle that needed to be solved. Therefore I put it at the start of the book, as if it were a murder at the beginning of a whodunit. That meant I could open the novel five months after Dreyfus’s arrest, and with its most dramatic public scene – the terrible episode in January 1895 when Dreyfus is stripped of his honour in front of a vast crowd.

Second, to solve the problem of the fearsome complexity of the story, I decided to see all the events solely from the perspective of Colonel Picquart. He would begin the novel convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt, and only gradually come to realise he was innocent. What was useful, indeed miraculous, about Picquart as a protagonist was that in real life he had actually been sent as a witness to Dreyfus’s trial and degradation. He had seen everything. Therefore, around halfway through the story, when he starts to remember Dreyfus’s arrest and court martial, those scenes have much more focus and personal interest, as the memory of what happened nags away at his conscience.

Finally, I decided to tell the story in the first person, by imagining this was Picquart’s own secret memoir, written around 1900 and consigned to a bank vault several years before he and Dreyfus were finally cleared. If I have learned nothing else about writing fiction over the past twenty-five years, it is that the narrative voice is everything. As the American novelist, E. L. Doctorow observed in 1995: ‘You have to find the voice that allows you to write what you want to write . . . It’s a writer’s dirty little secret that language precedes the intentions.’

Pretending it was Picquart’s narrative also enabled me to use the present tense. Normally, I find this slightly gimmicky. But as the French frequently use the present tense when describing events that have already occurred – for example, in newspaper reports – I decided that in this case it was justified. And, again, it would help rub away the sepia-tint from this nineteenth-century story and make it feel fresh and immediate. (Polanski, when he read the manuscript for the first time, said he thought I had ‘colourised’ history, which was exactly the effect I was trying to achieve.)

The result, I appreciate, may disconcert some readers, who will understandably want to know how much of what they have just read is factual. The answer in one sense is: ‘Everything.’ All the named characters existed, all the public events are true, and the newspaper reports and trial transcripts are accurate, albeit edited. In another sense, though, the answer is: ‘Nothing.’ Picquart never wrote a memoir and doubtless if he had it would not have been remotely like my version: I have no idea of the true nature of his relationship with Pauline Monnier, for example, beyond the bare facts that they had known one another for many years, had a long affair, and the Army told her husband about it.

What is available, however, is the vast resource of the internet – and this I think is important. For the first time it is possible for a reader to check the facts on which a novel is based whilst they are actually reading it, and without even moving from their chair. As I wrote, I realised that the web would act as a giant concordance to my fiction, and the thought was surprisingly liberating. It lifted the burden of responsibility from me. You don’t believe that Picquart and Henry fought a duel? Look it up. You doubt that Labori was shot just minutes before he was due to cross-examine Mercier, or that Lemercier-Picard was found dead in the hotel de la Manche? Don’t take my word for it. Even the locations can be checked in an instant using Google Earth.

I would issue only one note of caution. Once you start reading about the Dreyfus affair, you soon discover there is no end to it. And if you are not careful, you may end up writing a novel about it.

Robert Harris

March 2014

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