A while back I downloaded some episodes of a podcast that I had seen a few good reviews of: The Land of Desire. It basically acts as a miscellany for different aspects of France and French culture. After flicking through a few episodes, I landed on the six episode mini series on the Dreyfus Affair (from late 2016, I’m not exactly up to date here).
Until recently my knowledge of the Dreyfus Affair began and ended with a vague memory of seeing a print of Emile Zola’s J’Accuse newspaper headline in a history classroom. Then I read Robert Harris‘ An Officer And A Spy – and found it gripping. Told from the point of view of Colonel Picquart, a counter intelligence officer who uncovered the conspiracy, it is easy to be shocked by the forged evidence and military cover up. It really is a good book. But after the opening act of the (real life) scandal Picquart spends much of his time in exile or prison, so it is hard to see the real comings and goings. In addition, unlike Dreyfus, Picquart was not Jewish so it hard to really get into the rise of anti-semitism.
That’s where this podcast comes in – The Land of Desire is able to explore the full story of the scandal, in which a Jewish army officer was clumsily framed for selling military secrets to the Germans, even as the story unravelled and the real culprit became obvious. The need for a scapegoat coincided with the rise of anti-semitic feeling in France, and with a cultural divide between conservatives and progressives. The podcast is at its best when covering this battle, even if it has to remain brief to avoid spamming the listener with names and sidetracks.
The problem with the podcast is that Diana, the Californian writer/presenter/producer, is so polished that her delivery comes across as blandly earnest and upbeat, no matter the material. Part of this is the writing: she clearly can handle the big issues and complexities – as she does when describing the cultural divide in France or the continuing antisemitism – but at some points she oversimplifies (in an attempt to be accessible, I think).
I think the other part comes from a desire for professionalism, she is clearly very passionate about the material in this podcast (and rightly so) but that rarely shines through as she keeps her delivery level. When it does come through: the anger, the frustration, the sheer exasperation at the farcical conspiracy is actually very engaging – it’s a sense of personality that I’d like to see elsewhere. On the plus side, this upbeat delivery is great at dealing with the more comical parts of the story – the bizarre Major du Paty de Clam, the ridiculous handwriting expert Bertillon, the blocking of military judges.
I’m still in the early stages of the podcast, and there is a tendency for shows to improve over time, so I’m happy to continue listening and hope things even out. Back on topic, the mini-series does end on a sad note. Although Dreyfus and his supporters were ultimately pardoned, it would only be a few short decades before the Jews of France were decimated in World War Two – often with the support of parts of the local population. And anti-semitism remains a problem to this day – many of the arguments throughout the show felt oddly familiar, even down to the less direct things like the Socialists arguing that having to deal with a case like Dreyfus would be a distraction from the main battle against capitalism.