The Dreyfus Affair has inspired a number of fictional works, from writers as different as Marcel Proust, Roger Martin du Gard and Romain Rolland, and even films, beginning with Georges Méliès’s 1899 film contemporaneous with the events of the Affair. Most works of fiction, however, have not been able to match the melodramatic qualities of the real-life Affair, something that Anatole France recognized when he transposed the action of the Dreyfus Affair to an imaginary island peopled by penguins in his 1908 novel I’Ile des Pingouins.
In recent years, novelists on both sides of the Atlantic have tried their hand at incorporating the events of the Dreyfus Affair into their fiction, among them, the sister-writing team of Claude Izner in Les Souliers bruns du quai Voltaire and Barbara Corrado Pope in The Blood of Lorraine (reviewed by Charles Sowerwine in the last issue). But while the Affair constitutes the background for a murder mystery in these two novels, the Dreyfus Affair lies at the very heart of Susan Daitch’s Paper Conspiracies. Daitch, who teaches English at Hunter College, is not a French historian but she has done her homework (I found only a few small errors). In Paper Conspiracies, Daitch has brilliantly reimagined the Affair, weaving the stories of fictional and nonfictional characters to create a historical puzzle whose pieces only come together in the last few pages of the novel.
Daitch begins her story with narrator Frances Baum, the only child of a couple who survived the Holocaust. Frances, who has lost an eye to a letter bomb, moves to New York in the 1990s and is hired by Alphabet films to restore a print of Méliès’s film The Dreyfus Affair. Shortly thereafter, a shadowy character Jack Kews (J’Accuse, of course), who later dies in mysterious circumstances suspiciously recalling Zola’s, asks Frances to check the Méliès film to see if it hides an ending depicting the murder of the actor who played Dreyfus. Kews believes that he was stabbed to death, caught up in an angry mob protesting the pro-Dreyfus views of the film after a showing.
Daitch has envisioned an alternate reality involving the making of Méliès’s film, shot in the filmmaker’s studio in Montreuil at the very moment of the Rennes trial in 1899. Méliès, a friend of one of Dreyfus’s lawyers Fernand Labori, was pulled into the fray in the same way as other writers and artists of the time. In fact, he not only chose to represent the assassination attempt on Labori at the time of the Rennes trial in the film, he also opted to play the role of Labori himself. The fifteen-minute film containing eleven episodes (making up 12 scenes–the episode on the trial covers two scenes) begins with the dictation of the infamous bordereau by Armand Mercier du Paty de Clam in 1894 and ends with Dreyfus’s second guilty verdict at Rennes in 1899: Dreyfus is led away from the courtroom. Surviving copies of Méliès’s film are missing two scenes: the final one showing Dreyfus after the verdict and the scene depicting Dreyfus’s degradation. No one knows whether they were purposely destroyed or whether they were lost. This allows the novelist to re-imagine alternative endings. It is worth noting that Méliès recently captured the attention of director Martin Scorsese whose 2011 film Hugo (based on the Brain Selznick novel The Invention of Hugo Cabaret) revived public interest in the fin-de-siècle filmmaker, who began his career as a magician.
After some ninety pages, Daitch abandons Frances and only returns to her in the novel’s final pages. While Frances is an engaging character, I found the historical parts of the novel more captivating. In the second section, the novel, after a brief excursion to 1968, moves back to 1930s Paris, where the narrator, a girl called Madeleine, lives in her mother’s boarding house. One of the tenants is Auguste Bastian and the young Madeleine describes the old woman’s sly intimations of Dreyfus-era secrets not yet revealed. Those familiar with the Affair will know that Bastian was the cleaning lady-turned-spy who discovered the bordereau authored by Commandant Marie-Charles-Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy (wrongly attributed to Alfred Dreyfus), in the wastebasket of Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German attaché in Paris, through what was called “the ordinary track”–hence the title of this section.
The following section, which fully endorses the melodramatic possibilities of the Affair, is entitled “Squirting Cameras and Rubber Noses,” and is told through a series of letters also dating from the 1930s, exchanged between Claire Francoeur, Esterhazy’s fictional mistress, and her sister Lille. The fourth part of the book called “The Section of Statistics” is set in the era of the Affair and follows various characters, among them Félix Griblin, the real-life archivist of the French counterintelligence unit (the infamous Section des Statistiques) and a family of petty forgers he has engaged to fabricate evidence against Dreyfus. These characters, given the title of the novel, are understandably obsessed with paper—establishing false paper trails, recreating different versions of reality, in order to incriminate Dreyfus. This group of characters, including Claire who also forged evidence, can no longer differentiate truth from falsehood, so enmeshed are they in their own recreations. Indeed, Claire, whose fate is central to the plot, is a rather pathetic and disagreeable character—rather like her paramour Esterhazy; not only does she deny all responsibility for her actions, she is worried about her own reputation, seeing herself as a wronged victim.
The theme of alternative realities is also present in the penultimate section of the book, albeit by way of cinematic illusion. This section, entitled “Actualités and Preconstructions” also takes place during the Dreyfus Affair moving between the Montreuil film studio and Paris. It focuses on Fabien, a props master for Méliès, and on the making of the film itself (which Frances would attempt to restore decades later). Here too, melodrama is a recurrent theme, underscored by the host of louche over-the-top characters, including a male photographer dressed as a woman. The various threads of the novel finally come together in the final pages of the section–a feat I hadn’t thought possible earlier.
While Paper Conspiracies is highly engaging, it is not an easy read, moving as it does through time and shifting its viewpoints and narrators. It also requires some familiarity not only with the events of the Affair, but also with Parisian fin-de-siècle culture (jokes about Alfred Jarry and Ubu Roi, references to the Cabarets des Assassins, among others). It would thus be difficult to assign in its entirety or even in excerpts to undergraduates. Nevertheless, I fully intend to recommend the novel to my students, and I could also envision a final paper or independent study project on the book. Although the ending is slightly disappointing (perhaps like the real-life Affair itself?), Daitch is to be commended for successfully capturing the melodrama of the Affair in her novel, leaving the reader hanging until its closing pages and perhaps even beyond.
Susan Daitch Paper Conspiracies (San Francisco, City Lights, 2011).
- This must be a reference to the creator of The Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum since Frances is a bit like Dorothy–lost is in a world she doesn’t quite understand.
- The novel states that the Méliès film was banned shortly after initial showing. While it is possible that the film was banned in certain departments where it was shown, this claim, based on Méliès’s granddaughter’s account, is not easy to verify. Films on the Dreyfus Affair were censored in 1915—a ban not lifted, as Daitch correctly notes, until 1950. I discuss this issue at greater length in my piece “The Dreyfus Affair as National Theater”Revising Dreyfus: Art and the Law, ed. Maya B. Katz (Boston: Brill, forthcoming).
- Bastian’s name was Marie; Daitch has used her codename Auguste.
- Although the chronology of various Méliès films, in particular his 1902 A Trip to the Moon seems fuzzy, whether deliberate or intentional, I’m not sure.
- Given the French government’s recent decision to post the Dreyfus dossier online, perhaps a new generation of novelists will be inspired by its melodramatic possibilities.