An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

This 2013 work is a fascinating novel, and at the same time a brilliant recreation of history. One suspects that Harris felt the general public did not know the details of this famous event, and that its deception and corruption would make an intriguing work of fiction. And I loudly applaud him for this decision. Enough history has been written about the Dreyfus affair. The public, however, does not read history. It reads fiction.

Overall, this is the story of a miscarriage of justice, a plot created at the highest levels of the French army, a plot created to protect the reputation of that army at the expense of an innocent officer, a Jewish officer, in an era of anti-Semitism. And the novel is the story of how this was carried out, how it lasted for a decade, and how it nearly succeeded.

It did not succeed because of one man, the narrator of the novel, Georges Picquart. Picquart’s involvement was central to justice eventually being rendered, even though he acted in collaboration with many others. But a novel needs a central character, and, by making him the narrator as well, Harris has built a convincing case—even as his author’s note warns that “in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatize, and to invent many personal details.”

What makes this novel so convincing is the detail. We begin with the formal ceremony, in public, denouncing Captain Dreyfus as guilty. Major Picquart is present as a trusted aide of the French plotters, and is promoted to colonel and head of the army’s Statistical Section, a counterintelligence agency, with the assumption that he will be loyal to his superiors.

The Statistical Section has handled the Dreyfus case; and, at first, Picquart assumes Dreyfus’ guilt. But then he learns more and more about the evidence against the captain, and begins having doubts. He reads Dreyfus’ personal letters and his protestations of innocence. Then…a lover gossips that Dreyfus may be innocent, a torn (blue) telegram never sent by the Germans throws suspicion on a man named Esterhazy, and forged handwriting evidence against the true traitor is revealed to be not by Dreyfus but by Esterhazy. It seems he has been selling information to the Germans. Which is what Dreyfus has been convicted of. And so: are there one traitor, or two?

This is the beginning of Picquart’s effort to learn the truth. Who is the traitor? Why has Dreyfus been convicted? How much involved is the hatred of Jews? Is the evidence against Dreyfus sound? If not, who in the army has manipulated the evidence? And why? As Picquart seeks the answers to these questions, as he doubts the evidence against Dreyfus, the novel becomes more and more fascinating.

But this novel of espionage is also history. And is complicated by the era’s anti-Semitism, as well as by an army leadership which fabricates evidence in order to preserve careers and reputations. It is made credible by its portrait of Picquart, an honest and compassionate officer who gradually comes to believe the evidence that Dreyfus is innocent and Esterhazy is guilty, and who then duels with the army and the political establishment to prove his case. The odds, and the army, are stacked against him, as is even his own aide, Major Henry, but he perseveres. And as he endures defeat after defeat, and false evidence after false evidence, the suspense builds.

But unlike Maslin in the Times, I was more intrigued by the slow build-up, by the early “stream of discoveries,” as complicated as were the description of the forgeries, than by the later efforts to curtail Picquart’s allegations and to silence him—even exiling him to Tunisia. The repeated judicial reversals he endures, all under control of the army, do seem inevitable. But then there is a final political reversal—unexpected in the novel’s terms, I think, because Picquart has no role in the public’s growing awareness of the injustice. And the novel is stuck inside his viewpoint.

Louis Begley writes in his Times review that, as a result of Picquart being the narrator, “the focus is necessarily too narrow, failing to take in the historic background.” While I agree that something is lost at the end, as a result, this is outweighed by Colonel Picquart’s early presence. It is his personal involvement that gets the reader involved. That lends reality to the slow accumulation of details. Meaning Harris has sacrificed history for the sake of making the events come alive.

On picking up this novel, I thought the title referred to Dreyfus, who was an officer and was accused of being a spy. But now I think the word Officer refers to Picquart, who is the novel’s hero, and the word Spy refers, by using the “a,” to both the accused and the actual spy. This stems from my conviction that Harris made the right choice in telling this story through the eyes of Picquart. For just as he is slowly convinced by the compilation of evidence—and through him so is the reader—so does the reader understand why he is ready to sacrifice his career in the interest of justice.

The characterization of Picquart himself, however, is less effective. Despite his love affairs with the married Pauline and others, he does not come across as more than two-dimensional. He and Harris are too focused on the Dreyfus affair to allow significant personal complications to enter. And the other characterizations, of the army leadership, are even one-dimensional. They exist mainly as pro-Dreyfus, very few, or anti-Dreyfus. The overall portrayal is of corrupt army leadership, but individual motives are not evaluated. No one’s conscience is explored. Nor are any doubts that Picquart may have in taking a stand that may mean the sacrifice of his career.

To sum up, this is another case of Harris making the past come alive, of placing the reader in another era by having him identify with a real participant of that era. And by confronting the reader with that character’s daily decisions. The secret to making history come alive in fiction is focusing with a close-up lens rather than a panoramic lens. The panoramic lens is for the historian. I would hope that Harris might take this approach again—such as with the origins of the Russian Revolution. (November, 2016)


Conspirata, by Robert Harris

This 2009 work is history as a novel—and less a novel as history, as I wrote regarding the first volume in this series, Imperium. Because its emphasis here is on history. We are immediately with Marcus Tullius Cicero in the Rome of 63 BC, as this newly elected consul (head of the Roman senate) struggles to preserve the nation’s republican government.

Meanwhile, its other characters are also historic. A young Julius Caesar hovers nearby as a threat to overthrow the republic; and Pompey, who heads Rome’s army in the eastern Mediterranean, is another threat to return at any time and assume leadership himself. Meanwhile, other adversaries to Cicero in Rome mark the difficult road he faces in preserving the Roman Republic. They include such powerful figures as Crassus, Clodius, Catilina, and, at times, the mysterious Cato.

Caesar is mainly an onlooker as this novel begins, although he does maneuver himself into the role of pontus maximus, Rome’s religious leader. The main political concern of everyone early on is Pompey, and when he will return and will he bring his army to back him up.

We follow all this through the narrative voice of Tiro, Cicero’s devoted and intelligent private secretary, a slave who transcribes his owner’s conversations and speeches. Presumably, they are largely the actual words Cicero once spoke, and through Tiro’s efforts have come down to us through history. But the loyal slave has also been given by Harris the intelligence and wit that enlivens the political and social intrigue around Cicero.

Indeed, the website Leserglede, citing this intrigue, calls this novel “a very strong tale of shifting alliances, greed, sexual liaisons, personal ambition, love, hate, and total betrayal among the elites of Rome.”

The novel is divided into two parts, the first as Cicero leads the government as the chief consul in the Senate, faces an assassination plot, and maneuvers the political process to support the Roman constitution and preserve its government. For this, he uses primarily his intelligence, his wit, and his powers of oratory. The second part concerns his next five years out of office, as he valiantly strives to prevent Pompey, first, and then Caesar from coordinating their efforts and establishing a dictatorship.

Throughout, these pages offer a marvelous interpretation of history. Yes, this is Harris’ interpretation, especially, I think, toward the end, when Cicero’s outcome verges on injustice and tragedy. But the overall result is still history. If this is a novel, however, it is not literature. For as clear as the events are, they are more a re-creation than a creation. The emphasis is more on what happens, rather than on why. The emphasis is more on narrative than on interpretation.

We witness the events, therefore, and their political impact, but we do not experience them emotionally, not as Cicero did, nor as Tiro did. We remain outside these characters’ consciousness. We are observers. We witness history, and it is vividly presented, but it does not involve us. It does not because we know it is history, we know it is foreordained, and that the characters are not in charge of their destiny, as fictional characters need to be.

But I might also note what I wrote after reading Imperium: “It is the personal side of Cicero’s life that is missing here, and that might have turned this rich novel into a truly literary work….Yet Harris might argue, with some legitimacy, that he is dealing here with historic figures, that we know what they did but that to try to enter their minds would be presumptuous, even foolhardy. That he would prefer to be faithful to events, and to make them accessible to the general reader, rather than to speculate on what those characters were like within. Shakespeare may have explored their inner thoughts, but how many Shakespeares have there been? (And how many historians would there be to jump on him, Harris, for doing this?)”

My response today is that as foolhardy as such introspection might be, it is still the road to literature, as other classical authors besides Shakespeare have shown. Although I will acknowledge that the depth, the introspection, is often done through concurrent fictional characters. Whereas, in this case, the most interesting aspect of Cicero’s personal life is his complex relationship with his wife Terentia, whom he married for wealth and position. But to examine this marriage at length would, unfortunately, deflect the reader from the political intrigue that is the heart of this novel.

Indeed, Harris himself summed up his approach to this work during an NPR interview, and it is a political approach. “In a way, this whole trilogy — and this book in particular — is a duel between Cicero and Caesar— two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition….Cicero’s ambition is to rise within the system. Caesar’s desire is to smash the republic and remake it in his own image. And the clash between these two men, who are sort of, in a way, almost wary friends and admirers—that’s really the dynamic of the book. And I believe that Cicero has had a less good shake from history than Caesar.”

Yet, given the lack of psychological depth, there is another kind of artistry here. For the dramatic opening scene, with its discovery of a murdered boy, a human sacrifice, reverberates at the end, as it is connected to Cicero’s fate—as are many of his good actions as consul. For example, after he avoids the threat to his own life, and, as consul, is able to save Rome from the takeover by Catilina, Cicero also begins to sow the seeds of his own vulnerability, for his enemies will later take advantage of his persistent claim that he has been the savior of Rome.

In fact, Cicero exposes himself to actual prosecution, since after arresting Catilina’s co-conspirators, given that martial law existed, he permitted their execution without a trial. Which was contrary to his professed belief in the rule of law. (Indeed, the senate debate on this matter, with interventions against death by Caesar and for death by Cato is a highlight of the book,)

And so, when Cicero’s term as consul ends, the many who supported Catilina are now happy to see Cicero himself accused of bypassing the rule of law. This happens after Clodius, on trial for profaning secret female rites, and having had his alibi refuted by Cicero’s damning testimony, has bribed enough jurists to get himself acquitted—and then, in revenge, waits patiently to build a case against Cicero. Specifically, he gets elected as a tribune, and persuades his fellow legislators to pass a decree that says that anyone who aids a person who has executed others without a trial (which is Cicero) now faces the death penalty themselves.

The edict, in effect, condemns Cicero into exile, since no one can now aid him. And because to defend his own honor in a separate case he had specifically accused Caesar of supporting Catalina’s plan to subvert the government, he himself has become vulnerable. Even though Caesar has sworn to allow nothing to happen to him. Thus, the grandeur, the corruption, and, most of all, the hypocrisy of Rome is vividly portrayed, with all the political maneuvering that makes the infighting particularly fascinating.

What is interesting is that, first, Cicero, while raised in moderate wealth, is not recognized as a member of the elite. He is a self-made man. He earned his election as consul in the senate, a prestigious position, by his forthright intelligence, his eloquence, and his political smarts. And that, second, this man of justice is not an ally of the poor. For he calls them “the mob,” because he sees them being used in the power grab by Caesar and others of the elite. With the result is that he is despised by two opposing camps, both the wealthy patricians and the neglected populists.

What becomes confusing to the modern reader is that aligned against Cicero are the people he is presumably helping. These are the plebeians, the poor, the common people, who are represented by the tribunes and who have been seduced by Caesar; whereas, he seeks his allies among the nobles in the senate, as he tries to preserve the constitution and republican form of government. Which situation is contrary to today’s political environment, where we are used to the rich nobility seeking power and wealth, while it is the plebeians who seek fairness and justice.

This is the second in a trilogy of novels that recreates Cicero’s life. I enjoyed the first novel, Imperium, about Cicero’s rise to power, and this one as well. Here is a fascinating reading experience, a political thriller in its own terms, as it brings vividly to life a lesson in history. I look forward to the final volume, and expect it to be written on the same level. For what does literature matter, when an author brings to such vivid life the complexities of an ancient era? (March, 2015)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

This is a good novel. No one should say surprisingly, for Rowling is a born storyteller and a solid technician in this 2012 work. What I admired from the beginning was her creation of life in a small British town, Pagford, from the political confrontations to the family jealousies to the juvenile insecurities. And from the class warfare to the social ills to the generational conflicts.

The novel begins when a pillar of the town, Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies. This calls for a vote to replace him on the parish council—which introduces political conflict, since the dead man wanted to keep the town together rather than exile a poor community to another jurisdiction. To explore this conflict, we meet the families on both sides. There are Howard and Shirley Mollison, who run the council and want to rid the town of the poor, including a local clinic; their son Miles, a candidate following his father’s wishes; and Miles’ wife, Samantha. There are the Prices, whose son Andrew resents his father Simon and his decision to run for the council to take advantage of potential graft. And there is Andrew’s pal Stuart (Fats), whose father, Colby, is running to preserve the policies of the dead man.

Beyond the political intrigue, there is social conflict, centered on the poor Weeden family. Daughter Krystal is a teenager whose mother Terri is a self-centered prostitute and a heroin addict. Krystal adores her three-year-old brother, Robbie, whom her mother neglects. The daughter is the novel’s most fully developed character, and Rowling seems to identify with her insecurities, her contradictions, and yet her sound family sense. The Weedon’s friendly social worker is Kay Bawden, who has a beautiful daughter Gaia. Kay has come to Pagford hoping to find security with Gavin Hughes, a local lawyer. Finally, there is Parminda Jawanda, a doctor with a conscience, a handsome husband, and a plain, insecure daughter. Sukhvinder.

This is a complicated roster of characters, actually eight families, to follow during the town’s political and social intrigue. And it is complicated further by the five children. Andrew is buddies with Fats, and is in love with Gaia, who is best buddies with Sukhvinder. Meanwwhile, Fats has a continuing affair with Krystal, who wants to have a child in order to escape her family. And the still further complication is that each of these five children has a major problem with his or her parents.

In sum, I was impressed and absorbed by this portrait of a town and its families in conflict. But then “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” enters, leaving scandalous messages about the parish council and its candidates on the council’s website. Now, the more significant plotting of the novel truly begins, for these messages are being left, we know, by the three children, Andrew, Fats, and Sukhvinder, to revenge themselves on their parents. It is a unique plot device that is credible and certainly is in keeping with modern technology, yet it also reflects, in its way, the hand of the author—an author who has just written a classic series of novels about teenagers, the Harry Potter series.

And, indeed, the rest of this novel revolves around the actions of these five teenagers. The political conflict and election now recedes into the background, except for one argumentative but anti-climactic parish council meeting. The novel’s pace also quickens, as the children’s actions replace the verbal altercations of the adults. The final action centers on the desperate actions of Krystal and their impact on her family and on her fellow teenagers.

As I began reading this novel, it seemed that Rowling was determined to convince critics that she could write a true novel for adults. This came across from her portrait of this town, its political situation, and its various families. I sensed she was now writing from a life she knew, as serious writers do, rather than from a life she imagined. Toward the end, however, while I still considered it a valid, serious novel, it seemed to me that a commercial aspect, an emphasis on plot more than on relationships, was seeping in. Finally, the emphasis on the children at the end seemed to reflect the type of characters, the record has shown, she is most comfortable with.

It is this emphasis on the children at the end that most concerns me. The novel began as a portrait of a town, of its hypocrisies and its prejudices. This legitimately included the frustrations of its teenagers with their parents. But these frustratione began to drive the plot, and the reader gradually isn’t sure where the emphasis is meant to lie. Finally, the action of one teenager to take all the blame for the website messages and the death of another seems insufficiently prepared for, seems insufficiently motivated.

Perhaps the one aspect that I agree with in Kakutani’s very negative Times review is that there are no good characters here that the reader can identify with, as there would naturally be in an average small town. All are intended to come alive through their weaknesses. The social worker Kay is a good person at heart, but she is ineffective, and emerges as inconsequential. And Krystal’s goodness is outweighed by her anti-social rebellion. The result is an expose of this town more than a recreation of it. And a novel that leaves us depressed more than exhilarated, having introduced us to characters we would not really want as friends or neighbors.

On the other hand, the teenagers are more interesting as individuals than the adults. The prejudices of the adults could be considered more stereotypical, whereas the teenagers have their own individual problems and react to one another, and talk to one another, in their own individual way. As a result, we get to know them better, understand them better, and so sympathize with them better, even if we are disturbed by much of their conduct and remain unconvinced by their final actions and final fate.

To sum up, this is an admirable, old-fashioned novel about small-town English life, but it is peopled by unsympathetic characters and somewhat manipulated by the author to convey a message of social injustice and personal hypocrisy. It is dominated in the end by children, with whom she seems more comfortable, and who perhaps reflect the experience and emotions of her own past. (November, 2014)

Stardust, by Joseph Kanon

Kanon seems always to feature a strong setting, usually Europe, a complicated plot, and interesting European characters. He does it again here, and it again works. This 2009 book begins as a Hollywood novel, however, including even a 20th Century-type train ride with stars, this time heading westward. On arriving in Los Angeles, the hero, Ben Collier, confronts a mysterious death, that of his brother Danny. Danny has jumped or been thrown over a balcony. Ben and Danny are Jews raised in Europe, and Ben moves among both Hollywood’s German exiles, many Jewish, and Hollywood executives, in order to discover any connection they have with his brother, and why his brother died.

And so Stardust makes its initial impression as a Hollywood novel. It goes into deep detail as it presents the strategy, the rivalry, the maneuvering, and the technology behind studio life. We meet Sol Lasner, head of Continental Pictures; Bunny, his right hand man; and Liesl, widow of Danny and a budding star; plus, Osterman, Liesl’s father; and other Germans, like Dieter, Liesl’s uncle, and Kaltenbach. There are also Hal, a film cutter; Rosemary, a young star; Dick Marshall, a proven star; and then actual people in bit roles, like Paulette Goddard, Jack Warner, Alma Mahler, Thomas Mann, and Bertolt Brecht.

Ben has been brought in to Continental to direct a documentary on the German concentration camps, but is soon involved emotionally with Liesl as he searches for the truth about his brother. He moves about the studio offices, the sound stages, the cutting rooms, the preview parties, and confrontations with the press. It is a broad Hollywood setting, with gossip columnists like Polly Marks, as well as reporters, policemen, and FBI agents.

It seems the truth about Danny’s death is very complicated, but Ben slowly focuses on Danny’s involvement with Communists in the U.S. Was he still a Communist here, as he was in Europe when he helped émigrés like Liesl escape, or was he, here, a loyal American? And what are Liesl’s convictions? This is the 1940s, and red-baiting is beginning in the movie industry, led by California Representative Ken Minot. Who in the U.S. is deceiving whom in the search for Communists? Ben needs to know if he is to find the truth about Danny’s death. And what was Danny’s role?

The Communist witch-hunting takes over this novel’s second half, and it culminates in a dramatic hearing, led by Minot, in which Kanon pulls out all the stops. Meanwhile, Ben offers himself as a potential target to learn whom among the Communists killed his brother and why. There is one intriguing scene, as Ben hides in a closet in Minot’s office, seeking evidence, and is discovered—but not revealed. Why he is not betrayed involves more of the complicated motives of these people. On the other hand, the climactic scene with the killer on a sound stage is standard, and the identity of the killer is anti-climactic. But the pleasure of the novel has been in getting this far.

Kanon deliberately leaves one loose end, however. It seems to link the death of Danny with a mutual decision of Ben and Liesl. As if Kanon is not going to succumb to a traditional happy Hollywood ending. I went back to reread a number of pages, and still could not decide Kanon’s true intent.

This is a rich reading experience, as are all Kanon’s novels. In this case, it is his detailed portrait of Hollywood that sets this work apart. It is one of the best portraits I have read because of its range of detail. It is also an expose of the Red witch-hunts there, with a dramatic climax in which Lasner powerfully, but unrealistically in actual life, tells off the witch-hunter.

This work is also a political murder mystery that raises moral and ethical issues, which has brought comparisons to Graham Greene and John LeCarre. I would not rank Kanon at that level, but would place him fairly close behind LeCarre. Like LeCarre, he is also prone to complicated plots that are not easy to follow. Such as the morality of those who collaborate with the Communists to undermine them. And the suggestion that those who do so are actually being used by the Communists. And then there is the treatment of the German émigrés, who have fled one persecution and are now threatened by another. Plus, the complexity is enhanced by the novel’s structural variations. Such as the reversals of Ben’s suspicions regarding Bunny, Danny, and Liesl. And the changing role of the FBI.

Some of the complications that confront Ben help enrich his character. He seems to fall in love with his brother’s wife. Should he? And he agrees to collaborate with Congressman Minot in his pursuit to learn what happened to his brother. Again, should he? Plus, in order to learn the truth, is he justified in offering himself as a target? For if he is killed, will the truth ever be known?

But I continue to go back to this portrait of the film industry, through one small company, Continental. Kanon himself had been the president of two major New York publishers, but has no apparent Hollywood background. Thus, one marvels at what must have been tremendous research. But he obviously learned also from writers he published. Such as that reality comes from small touches. Here, one touch is the presence of Paulette Goddard, always portrayed in a positive light. She is witty and direct, as well as beautiful. Kanon seems truly to have fallen in love with her. And why not? She was always one of my favorites as well.

To sum up, this work will survive mostly because of its portrait of Hollywood. And will interest many because of its exploration behind the scenes of the Communist witch-hunts. For mystery lovers, its double-dealing may be too confusing. The personal story of Ben is more intriguing at the start, as he becomes involved with Liesl and the German émigrés, less so later on when he sets himself up step-by-step as a target. And the exposure of Danny’s killer is inconsequential—except, do we really know who it was?

I am on to more Kanon, expecting more European post-war atmosphere, and more complicated intrigue. (October, 2014)