on January 28, 2010
They say you should write about what you know and Frederick Brown certainly knows the French. The events he chronicles at the end of the 19th century lead us through the quest to discern what exactly constitutes the essence of France.
Here is the saga of France's sojourn from Monarchy to Republic. The French revolution may have begun in 1789 but it was fought well into the twentieth century. The author picks up the tale at the Franco Prussian War in 1870. He gives us the events that shaped France into the country we now see; but what a convoluted, tortured trip it has been. It's a miracle the Third Republic survived with attacks from left and right, economic disasters, and revolving door Premiers. As France struggled through failed governments and the demi-gods who threatened, she constantly searched for a scapegoat. The Catholic Church and the Germans took their fair share of hits but the old standby, Jewry, bears the brunt of the attack.
There will always be those who refuse to give up the past, praying for the return of a monarch or an emperor, insisting on France for the French. Luckily there were also those who challenged the old ways and the old religion and fought for free, secular education. Thiers, Clemenceau & Zola fought to build the Republic. The conservatives and royalists reawakened the symbol of Joan of Arc. Eiffel's tower sits in juxtaposition to Sacre Coeur. On one side the growth of technology and scientific thought. On the hill in Montmartre France's penance for the sins heaped upon her by the church.
Read this book because you'll see the frightening similarities to the first ten years of the 21st century. There are all the lies, finger-pointing, invented evidence we've seen since 2000. There's a lion's share of yellow journalism. Fear is the weapon of choice. Sadly, it's all accepted by those who were taught to think, but didn't.
This is certainly the quickest, most readable history you'll find. Be prepared to think, to reason and come to your own determination because this book is not about the Soul of France, it's merely setting you off on the search for it.
Quite good for the reader seeking to better understand the two main cultural driving forces of the period of 1848 to 1908 within France: Catholic church/tradition vs. liberal thought/the modern. And, of course, what is said of this turbulent period has echoes to the present day.
Frederick Brown is a good writer with an excellent grasp of the various stories he spins in this book, such as the funding scandal surrounding the Panama Canal, the building of Eiffel's tower, and, importantly, that of the ill-fated Captain Dreyfus.
"For the Soul of France" reminds one that the current "cultural wars" within the United States are somewhat tame compared to the deep chasms dividing the population of 19th century France.
on May 4, 2010
A luscious bonbon of pop history. Elegantly designed, from its typography (in Sabon, since you ask: the book has a colophon, of course) to its deckle-edge pages, cover design and tasteful choice of illustrations. The signatures in my copy were glued a little too tightly and I sometimes had to tear at them a little to open the book out flat, but this just adds to its Craftsman elegance. I came across only two typos or misspellings. I like to think these were due to the overconfidence of the book editors who, presented with an electronic ms. in what looked like immaculate prose, didn't bother with copy editors and proofreaders, and just zipped it off to the print shop in Lancaster, PA.
Frederick Brown's last books were biographies were acclaimed biographies of Zola and Flaubert. His love for the era fill his narrative with a warm glow. Here he has set himself a trickier subject. This is not the story of a single author finding his voice and battling his critics, or a rhapsody about the greatness of French culture, but an investigation of a proud national civilization in midlife crisis, when a lot of ugly things were said and done.
The most useful parts of the book are the chapters about the Union Generale bank, the Panama Scandal, and the soap-bubble-like political enthusiasm for General Boulanger. These were the hot crises of the "peaceful" decade of the 1880s. I've read about them before, but always found my eyes glazing over. Momentous events and sparkling personalities, yes; but there are just too many of them. Brown handles them all with entertaining concision.
The heart of the book, unsurprisingly, is the section on the Dreyfus Affair. For most people this has always been an infernal puzzlement. Many of the basic facts are still unknown, largely because most of the principal players lied like troupers. We've all learned the baby-talk version: Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a colorless nobody, is accused of espionage; convicted and exiled to the legendary Devil's Island for four long years; but finally revealed to be the victim of a cruel conspiracy by the fire-breathing anti-Semites of the French officer corps and Catholic hierarchy.
Brown's patient unfurling of the tale makes it clear that the Affair was never really about Dreyfus himself, or his guilt or innocence. The leftist and anti-clerical "Dreyfusards" found the case a convenient club for taunting and whacking their political enemies. Almost from the start, they used the foreign press to sound the alarm that the French Army and Church had connived to railroad an innocent man because he was a Jew. Infuriated by this international propaganda war, the "anti-Dreyfusards" fell into the ambush and circled the wagons. They fell over themselves to defend the conviction even when a cursory review of the facts suggested that there were other, bigger spies than Dreyfus and there was a good chance Dreyfus himself was innocent. Secret dossiers were passed around, new notes were forged and "discovered," and the ministry of defense seemed to condone it all: this was war, after all. Even Col. Picquart, head of military intelligence, found himself transferred to Algeria when he found the forgeries and tried to prove that Dreyfus was innocent.
Brown tries hard to seem scrupulously fair. However he appears to have skipped some basic research. For example: he tells us that Dreyfus's handwriting bore no resemblance to the script on the "bordereau" (the original incriminating document that got Dreyfus sent to Devil's Island). But really the two hands look very much alike. As indeed they also resemble the handwriting of Major Esterhazy, the "real" spy. Anyone can compare samples in various places on the internet, but you won't find them reproduced here. This is a glaring omission. It was these handwriting samples that convicted Dreyfus. You really have to see how closely they resemble each other to understand how anyone believed in poor old Dreyfus's guilt in the first place.
on July 23, 2010
Someone once wrote that but for the uncounted careers and lives shattered or lost, the personal and public fortunes scattered or purloined, the military scandals and misadventures, and the viciously irreligious religious disputes, nineteenth century French political life would make a marvelous comic opera. It came too late, but one can easily imagine Gilbert & Sullivan concocting a delightful operetta of the Dreyfus Affair were it not for the fact that the duplicitous machinations of the Army General Staff, the pernicious irresponsibility of the popular press, and the noxious fulminations of execrable anti-Semites would combine to suggest a libretto more fantastical than any `Mikado' or "Pinafore.'
Despite my fondness for one or two chanteuses, I have never been particularly intrigued by post-Revolutionary French domestic history (excepting Napoleon and his tumultuous era) because I have found trying to follow the ebb's and flow's of the various regimes, up to and including to the present day, not really worth the effort. The royals may have been despotic by definition but at least they possessed a facially consistent claim to legitimacy and internal symmetry as evidenced by the fact that a very considerable part of the population never fell out of love with the idea of them, if not their earthly embodiments. But one has to admit that the French are a beguiling bunch, even as they defy comprehension, and so I took a chance on this book because of its stated premise. After all, there is nothing in French history more difficult to get a handle on than how it unfolded in the nineteenth century. And, with Ms. Piaf, I have no regrets.
Author Brown does an absolutely superb job of portraying the social and religious atmospheres of the time and the ever-roiling tensions between `secular republicans' and the generally religious-oriented monarchists. As noted by other reviewers, his succinct descriptions of the era's two principal public scandals, the Union Generale and the Panama Canal fiasco, are models of historical story-telling, as is his account of the Dreyfus Affair which was the logical, arguably inevitable, culmination of the period's events and serves as the coda of this excellent work. Eiffel, de Lesseps, Boulanger, Clemenceau, MacMahon, Zola, the reformers and those badly in need of reform, are all present and adroitly accounted for as Brown recounts his tale. And I must admit I found the enterprise both illuminating and a complete pleasure to read.
The author is a word composer of exceptional skill. He writes like a fine athlete strides: forceful yet restrained, purposeful yet elegant, altogether obviously knowing where he's going and how he's going to get there. And he wields his manifestly impressive vocabulary as a scalpel rather than a sword. Have your dictionary at your elbow and delight in exploring words you either never acquired or have forgotten.
In sum, a terrific read that, and I'm reluctant to say this, might just encourage me to pay more attention to the history of those arcane Frenchmen rather than only their songs.
on December 22, 2011
'For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus' by Frederick Brown is an engaging overview of French history focused largely on the years between the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the brink of World War I. At the heart of the story is the continuing tension between Church and State, or in Zola's biased words, "the endless duel between science and the longing for supernatural intervention" (as quoted by the author on pg. 3).
Like the French Revolution from which the issue "went viral", the contest between science and spirituality becomes tangled with issues of governance (monarchists, republicans, etc.) and with personal ambitions, which, certainly in this telling, tend to be driven by opportunity more than ideology or principle.
The book does not pretend to be an exhaustive chronicle of 'fin de siecle' France, but instead uses broad strokes to paint a portrait of an age undergoing shifts and swings in mass consciousness and political power. It is not a very pretty sight, and few heroes emerge from Brown's tale.
The story is sometimes framed around public monuments such as the statue of Joan of Arc at the place des Pyramides (1874), the Sacre-Coeur (begun in 1875, it wouldn't be finished until 1914), or the iconic Eiffel Tower (1889). As Brown quotes a contemporary Frenchman, the Eiffel Tower is, "a monumental political argument" (pg.124). Well, it seems everything else was, too.
Brown tells us how the Union Generale (1889-92), a financial institution associated with Roman Catholics, and the secular Panama Canal Company (1880-90), after flourishing briefly as a result of widespread enthusiasm, both collapsed miserably as a result of gross mismanagement with great loss to many.
The Dreyfus Affair certainly takes center stage for much of the book, and it suits the author's apparent purpose of exposing the dark side of the cultural wars (including deeply rooted anti-Semitism, a prejudice shared by some on either side of the debate). As the book winds down there is a distinct feeling of cynicism and fatigue.
As we all know, the forces of modernity ground forward (for both good and ill). In France (as elsewhere in Europe) the ordeal was perhaps exhausting, leading people to seek other outlets for identity and community. Towards the end of the book Brown quotes Maurice Barres (on August 4, 1914 upon the declaration of war with Germany), "... I've wanted nothing more than for Frenchmen to unite around the great ideas of our race. So they have. Blood has not yet rained upon our nation and war has already made us [at the Assembly] feel its regenerative powers. It is a resurrection." (pg. 265).
About 1.3 million Frenchmen would die in the war, and that grind could only lead to more cynicism and fatigue.
Read this book if you get the chance.
Frederick Brown begins this book with a quote from the papers of Émile Zola, in which he instructed himself to "study and dramatize the endless duel between science and the longing for supernatural intervention." Just as that struggle marked the fiction of Zola, it was the theme of French history in the last third of the 19th-Century, dominating all aspects of the country's social, political, and cultural life. In FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE, Frederick Brown chronicles this continuous conflict between reason (natural science and historical criticism) and faith (especially that demanded by the Roman Catholic Church and that invested in primitive nationalism, whether inspired by the monarchy or by Jeanne d'Arc).
Along the way, the reader encounters various historical figures of note, among them Pope Pius IX, Léon Gambetta, Jules Ferry, Eugéne Bontoux, Georges Boulanger, Gustave Eiffel, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and - of course - Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola. Among the significant events or episodes of French history covered in the book are the Paris Commune, the rise and fall of the Union Générale, the Panama Canal scandal, and the Dreyfus Affair. I personally was not as familiar with these matters as I wanted to be, and FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge in a non-pedantic fashion.
In reading the book, I was repeatedly and particularly struck by two things: One, the parallels between right-wing, religiously-imbued French demagoguery and tomfoolery (of which Georges Boulanger and the Boulangists may be the prime example) and contemporary American political phenomena, such as the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. Second, I was struck by the pervasiveness and virulence of anti-Semitism in France of the late 1800s, aggressively encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church. (Of the Dreyfus Affair, a Vatican organ commented: "the Jewish race, the deicide people, wandering throughout the world, brings with it everywhere the pestiferous breath of treason, [so in the Dreyfus case] it is hardly surprising if we again find the Jew in the front ranks, or if we find that the betrayal of one's country has been Jewishly conspired and Jewishly executed.")
Brown writes well, though at times the book borders on being over-written, too showy and too baroque. Here's an example, in which Brown summarizes the opposition to the Eiffel tower: "For aesthetes, Eiffel's tower was the grotesque child of the industrial age, desecrating a museological city. For Catholics, it was the sport of revolutionary Nimrods expounding their secularism in Notre-Dame's parish with phallic arrogance. And for nationalist zealots, * * * the wrought-iron tower incommensurate with everything else in Paris was a tyrannical mutant, a foreigner lording it over the French past and future, a cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of `Israel.'"
FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE is an instructive work of social, cultural, and political history. For those already knowledgeable about France of the late 1800s and the Dreyfus Affair, it probably will not add very much. For me, however, it was well worth my time.
on August 12, 2010
There are many reasons to like this book.
First, it is about a culture war, and if you think that the US culture war will come to an end someday soon, consider the poor French, who endured theirs from the before the 1789 revolution to around 1905, when the church was finally separated from the state.
As with our culture wars, the left (the enlightenment, the secular side) kept winning, and the right (the Catholic Church, the peasantry in certain areas, the old aristocracy) kept retreating. But not graciously. For every defeat, blame was put upon the Jews. For instance, the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of science and progress, was vilified by the right because it did not come from traditional architectural roots, like the Sacre-Coeur. Jews had to be responsible, so the blame was put on the Jew Eiffel. Except that neither he nor any of his ancestors were Jewish. The same was true of the Union General, an investment house dedicated to improving the status and wealth of the church. It was betrayed by its pious founder, but Jews were found to blame. The same was true of the Panama Canal Company, which seems to have corrupted large sections of the French government. I kept thinking that if France had lost World War I, some French Hitler might have come to power in France. The preconditions were there.
The outcome was a victory by the left, a separation of church and state, but it consumed French passions for over a hundred years. This book helped me to understand the current antipathy of the French to the Moslem burka, which does not seem to bother the Americans or the British.
Another reason to read this book is that it is composed of good stories. The account of the Dreyfus affair is the best I have ever read. The section on Boulanger--a handsome but limited man who nearly became a dictator--is hilarious. The book is a series of essays on various topics. Each is an interesting story in itself. Taken together they illustrate the overall theme.
Finally, the author is funny. One politician he describes as "a high-strung little man, who looked more like a ninepin than a pillar of state." Of another who was told to temper his enthusiasm, "he might as well have asked Zephyr to guard against blowing."
Nineteenth century prose is extravagant and rhetorical to our ears. Brown has absorbed some of it, which is a mixed blessing. He writes that "the brigadier was a rare bird, and republicans in Paris reacted to news of his sighting like grackles suddenly befriended by a raptor." I had to look up several of his abstruse classical references. I am glad that someone continues to use them.
on August 29, 2012
If you thought that the Dreyfus Affair was the fons et origo of anti-Semitism in France, or that the Kulturkampf was just a phenomenon relegated to Bismarck's imperial Germany, this book may just very well be the place to begin a solid education in late nineteenth-century French cultural history. Brown assumes a minimal knowledge of the politics of the time (First Empire, Second Republic, Third Empire, et cetera), but provides a useful chronology at the beginning of the book and adds just enough political background to keep the narrative both clear and engaging. The use of the words "culture war" in the subtitle is by no means a cynical ploy to attract readers, either. The words and the politics to which they give so theatrical a birth were just as relevant then as they ever have been.
The tug-of-war between Catholicism and the allied forces of modernity, science, and secularism sandwiched between the times of Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III dominate the book. Any vignette to begin with would have admittedly been arbitrarily chosen, but Brown's choice of the 1863 publication of Ernst Renan's "La Vie de Jesus" ("The Life of Jesus") serves as a terrific and illustrative point of departure for a book whose major themes include Renan's strident anti-clericalism.
Brown also includes a couple of stories that are unfortunately little-known in the United States, but that give hints of the growing violence and division that is to come. He tells of the Union Generale, an investment syndicate launched by aristocratic, pro-Catholic associates that went on to build railroads all over Europe. Due to rampant speculation and financial impropriety on the part of the man who ran the operation, it suffered a tremendous failure - also known as the Paris Bourse crash - in January, 1882. Perhaps not surprisingly considering the events to come, the first people to be blamed were the Jews. We get detailed chapters of the building of the Panama Canal and the 1897 fire at the Charity Bazaar as well, but the heart of the book is a 55-page long chapter on perhaps the one event - or rather a long, complex series of events - that is familiar to all Americans: the Dreyfus Affair.
Woven together, these bits of history provide one of a few tapestries that really are essential for understanding the French history of this period. For someone unfamiliar with the major names and events, I recommend Robert Gildea's "Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914," which provides much of the political background that Brown can't cover in a brief 265 pages. Brown has a tremendous grasp of the source material. I highly recommend this to readers looking for a great bridge between popular and more formal academic history regarding this period. Reading this makes me want to pick up the Brown's Flaubert biography that I have on my shelves - or anything else that I can find by him.
on January 11, 2012
... are condemned to watch it repeat itself."
No, Santayana didn't say that. Neither did Winston Churchill nor Edmund Burke. I said it, or at least thought it, after reading Frederick Brown's "For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus." Oh yes, I did read it eagerly, for the simple reason that it's excitingly written and for the personal reason that I've undertaken to read the twenty Rougon-Macquart novels by Emile Zola all in French. Brown is the author of a detailed biography of Zola, which I suppose I'll read some day, as well as of this cultural history of France from the foiled revolution of 1848 to the verge of World War I. Reading Zola has alerted me to how little I knew about that crucial epoch in "modern" history. Reading Frederick Brown has alerted me to how much the events of that epoch were seminal in the events of everything since.
Frederick Brown is too proper a historian to explicate or expatiate much about the seemingly patterned recurrences of history. That stuff is for philosophers and reviewers! Brown would hesitate to theorize that "revanchism" is a predictable response to a humiliating loss in a war. An incautious reviewer might suggest similarities between the polarization of society in France after the debacle in 1870 and the radical polarization in Germany after 1918 ... or in the United States after its drubbing in Vietnam, an agony that continues today. Brown's only allusion to contemporary America is in his title; "culture wars" is too easily recognized as a reference to the Red State-Blue State polarization of US politics post-Reagan not to be taken as a hint.
Designating his subject as "the Age of Dreyfus" is also obviously more than a hint that anti-Semitism will be a central theme in those culture wars. Less obvious is the fact that the alliance between social conservatives and religious fanatics will determine the fervor of anti-Semitism in France. It's painfully fascinating to 'discover' that nearly all the elements of Nazi anti-Semitism -- all the rhetoric, all the derogatory stereotypes, all the murderous rage -- had been rehearsed in full in France. That ugly chapter of history, I think, has been too willfully forgotten, but it isn't "music to my ears" to learn that Degas and Renoir and other icons of art and literature were virulent anti-Dreyfusards. On the other hand, Emile Zola emerges from this brouhaha as one of Nature's Noblemen, as worthy a cultural hero as history can display.
If you are a Zola fan, you MUST read this book! Zola's novels were historical judgments disguised as fiction; recognizing the events and personages masked in them can only make them more vivid. Brown's discussion of Jewish stereotypes, and of the actuality of Jewish international finance, will illuminate the pages of other 19th C novelists beside Zola. The central character of Anthony Trollope's novel "The Way We Live Today" - Augustus Melmotte - could well have been a full-length portrait of any of several self-reinventing "malefactors of great wealth" in France in that Age of Dreyfus.
I'm tempted to summarize more of this book, just for the opportunity to juxtapose the Culture Wars of 19th C France with the scurrilous shenanigans of the Right Wing in America today. However, this book is so entertaining and so cogent that I have to abstain from"spoilers". Read it for yourself, for your own soul and for the Soul of America.
on May 15, 2012
Americans are by now familiar with the so-called "culture wars" pitting the "red states" against the "blue states." In late 19th century France, the divide was between the tricolore and the fleur de lis, between those determined to firmly establish a secular French Republic and those who wished France to remain true to its heritage of "throne and altar." The most notorious flare-up on this front was the Dreyfus Affair, but even works of literature, natural disasters, great feats of engineering, and expositions celebrating French progress became "cultural footballs" during this time period, as Frederick Brown relates in this engrossing work.
The book's narrative "spine," so to speak, is formed from descriptions of three famous fairs held in Paris in 1878, 1889, and 1900. The longest-lasting by-product of these events was the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 exposition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. We think of the Tower today as the veritable symbol of Paris, if not France itself, but, for those who had never fully accepted the radical surgery that the Revolution had performed on French society, this thousand-foot spire was an unwelcome interloper in an ancient city that had already lost a good deal of its medieval character, thanks to the damage from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the suppression of the Paris Commune. Insults hurled at the Tower included "a disgraceful giant skeleton" and "an odious column of bolted metal" than even uncouth Americans wouldn't stoop to create. More bizarrely, the Tower was held up as the product of a conspiracy of "cosmopolites," i.e. Jews. Just as anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany before Hitler, so, too, did French anti-Semitism predate Dreyfus. Indeed, the feelings were arguably more bitter in France, because of the longstanding alliance between French government and the Catholic Church. With powerful republicans pushing to separate Church and State in France -- and finally succeeding in doing so in the early 1900s -- traditionalists felt besieged on political, religious, and cultural fronts. The Dreyfus Affair combined all three elements, which helps explain what, to a non-Frenchman, must seem its mystifyingly lengthy half-life.
Brown does a fine job of summarizing the main points of L'Affaire, but it is only one of the many featured elements here. Renan's LIFE OF JESUS is seen as an important turning point in the accelerating secularization of French culture, in addition to being a landmark in Biblical criticism. The early struggles of the ill-fated Third Republic, plagued from within by instability and corruption and from without by threats from Left and Right, not to mention the occasional would-be Bonapartist figure (cf. the dilatory General Georges Boulanger), are discussed in considerable detail, as are the financial disasters of the Union Generale and the Panama Canal Company, which at once left the door wide open for political and social corruption and stoked the fiery fantasies of those convinced that Jewish financial intrigue was to blame for the companies' downfall. The most chilling tale of all, from a modern perspective, may be the treatment of a disastrous 1897 fire that destroyed a Parisian charity bazaar sponsored by wealthy Catholic ladies. Hardly were the corpses identified and laid to rest when populists and Catholics alike were busily using them as political pawns, with the former describing the proletarians who rushed to help fight the fire as the "true heroes" of the disaster and the latter eulogizing the victims as martyrs who had died to atone for a sinful nation that had turned away from the true faith. The rapid politicization of Hurricane Katrina is uncomfortably close to this and, furthermore, suggests that, with secularists increasingly identifying themselves as members of one American political party and religious believers as members of the other, America may be headed for the same unholy combination of combined religious, political, and cultural disagreement coming to be seen as the natural order of things. If anyone believes that this is a good thing, Brown's book -- and a bit of reflection on the subsequent history of France in the 20th century -- will quickly convince him or her otherwise.