Douglas Hurd on Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy

One question above all emerges when reading this book: would we in Britain have behaved better?

An Officer and a Spy
Robert Harris
Hutchinson, 496pp, £18.99

Robert Harris is a novelist of range and depth – he moves from the Soviet Union to the politics of ancient Rome through a prime minister manufacturing his memoirs and now to France of the Third Republic convulsed by the Dreyfus case. In each book, Harris has found a way of marrying history with intelligent fiction to produce thrillers that are both insightful and gripping.

In An Officer and a Spy, Harris gives us a portrait of one institution: the French army. There are skilfully composed characters, from successive ministers of war and the chief of the intelligence department to Major Henry, the second in command of the shadowy statistical section. Each is driven by devotion to the army, right or wrong, and tested by the horrifying thought that the Jewish officer from the Alsace condemned by a court martial and sent to Devil’s Island to serve his sentence may be innocent.

The narrator is Colonel Picquart, who is promoted to run the statistical department, thus becoming the youngest colonel in the French army. Convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt at the beginning, he slowly starts to realise his innocence. However, one by one, his colleagues try to block his inquiries, arguing that loyalty to the army is the supreme good in their lives. As one of them puts it:

Now do not be such an arrogant young fool and listen to me. General Boisdeffre is about to welcome the tsar to Paris in a diplomatic coup that will change the world. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from these greater issues by the sordid matter of one Jew sent to a rock, it will tear the army to pieces.

Another officer makes the point more crudely. “He ordered me to shoot a man and I have shot him,” he says. “You tell me afterwards, I got the name wrong, and I should have shot someone else – I am very sorry about that but it is not my fault.” And so, in different accents, say the rest of them. Eventually Picquart is posted to Tunisia. Only there does he find a sympathetic fellow colonel but that officer is so disillusioned with Paris that he declines to help. Although most in the military are not in the first instance moved by anti-Jewish prejudice – their driving motive is raison d’état – they are blinded by the knowledge that Dreyfus is a Jew. The army is determined to find a German spy in its ranks and Dreyfus is suited to the role.

As newspaper leaks multiply, the “Dreyfusards” gradually gather strength; they include Clemenceau and Zola, with his article “J’accuse”. At the same time, the name Esterhazy begins to appear in documents intercepted by the French authorities. Were there two spies or is Dreyfus innocent? Doubt spreads from one newspaper to another. It is too late to undo the past; the lies have not just been told but repeated.

Ultimately a warship is sent to Devil’s Island to bring Dreyfus home and he is acquitted. The years pass; Clemenceau becomes prime minister and appoints Picquart as minister of war. The last scene is an argument between Dreyfus and Picquart about the correct rank in which Dreyfus can be brought back into the army.

One question above all emerges when reading this book: would we in Britain have handled things better? My publisher, George Weidenfeld, tells a story about leaving Austria at the time of the Anschluss. As the British consul in Vienna stamped his documents, he told Weidenfeld, “You will be safe now. We once had a Jewish prime minister in Britain.” Technically that is incorrect, because Disraeli was baptised at the age of 12 into the Church of England. But in spirit, the consul’s point was valid. Despite all the barriers, prejudices and obstacles that British Jews faced in the 19th century, Britain somehow stoppedshort of the depths of institutional persecution that scarred Europe. There was cruelty but also an element of the comic opera in the way the English considered Jewish people in these years. When Disraeli stood for election at Shrewsbury in 1841, a man arrived on a donkey saying he had come to take him back to Jerusalem. There was no such humour in the treatment of Dreyfus in Paris.

In the novel, Harris describes fishermen bringing in the daily catch. This includes some turtles, their jaws tied shut with string – all alive but blinded to prevent them from escaping. They make a noise like cobbles being cracked together as they clamber over one another, desperate to find the water they can sense but can no longer see. This is the parable that runs through the story, as the French army suffers from a similar blindness.

“Disraeli: or, the Two Lives” by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)

French soldier Alfred Dreyfus on his release from prison and restoration to his army rank after the charges against him were dismissed. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism