Robert Harris talks about his terrific new novel about the Dreyfus Affair and the whistleblower who blew it wide open: An Officer And A Spy. And Francine Prose talks about her new historical novel about France in the 1930â€™s: Lovers At The Chameleon Club-Paris, 1932.
When Robert Harris started working on An Officer And A Spy, his novel about the Dreyfus Affair, he wasnâ€™t thinking about its eerie parallels with state security scandals today. But the point came when those parallels emerged in stark relief.
Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer accused of treason on trumped up charges in France in 1894. His persecution grew out of rampant paranoid anti-Semitism in France not unlike the anti-Muslim sentiment in the US after 9-11. He was sent to solitary confinement on Devilâ€™s Island, a godforsaken, malarial speck off the coast of French Guiana – cue Guantanamo. The French Army ran a covert security apparatus that spied on thousands of completely innocent French civilians – cue the NSA. And when Dreyfusâ€™ conviction came under serious doubt, the Army tried to cover it up — successfully for some ten years.
But, because of the integrity of one French Army officer, Georges Picquart, the truth finally came out. Harris tells his novel from Picquartâ€™s point of view — whose mounting horror at the fraud he was uncovering led him to risk everything to tell the truth.
Robert Harris is the well-known author of many works of historical fiction, including Enigma and The Ghost.
We return to France in the our second segment — but now, itâ€™s a generation after Dreyfusâ€™ acquittal: 1932 — when Paris is the place to be, if you are an artist — or a refugee from the gathering clouds of Nazi Germany.
Francine Proseâ€™s new novel, Lovers At The Chameleon Club-Paris, 1932, explores the lives of her characters caught in this era between two world wars — a brief time of incandescence before the lights go out. Her protagonist is a cross-dressing lesbian race car driver, Lou Villars. Sheâ€™s based on a real woman who became a spy and interrogator for the Gestapo under the French Occupation.
The novel investigates the nature of evil — and of courage — and asks the question, what would we have done, if we had found ourselves then and there.
Francine Prose is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction. We last talked with her about her novel, My New American Life.