Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Robert Harris

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Robert Harris

Article excerpt

Credit: Robert Harris

To Paris, for the launch of the French edition of my novel about the Dreyfus affair. As we land, I isolate three anxieties out of my general sense of unease. First is the natural nervousness of any Englishman contemplating telling the French anything about their own country. Second is the French law which allows the descendants of actual historical figures -- of whom there are dozens in my novel -- to sue for defamation: the heirs of the Marquis de Sade even objected to an unflattering portrayal of the inventor of sadism. Third, I am required to make a speech in French, and while my grasp of that language is not as bad as my sister-in-law's -- who once genuinely inquired, at a restaurant in the Var: 'What is the French for ratatouille?' -- it is, let us say, un peu mauvais . I have in my pocket an anecdote from the diaries of the private secretary of King George VI, Sir Alan Lascelles, recounting how Churchill was overheard berating de Gaulle during a heated wartime argument: 'Et, marquez mes mots, mon ami -- si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai. ' I propose to say: 'Je parle le français comme Churchill ' and hope the story will see me through.

To my surprise, I discover that aides of the French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, have read the novel and approve of it, even to the extent of allowing a small launch party to be held in the hôtel de Brienne on the rue Saint-Dominique -- the official residence of successive Ministers of War since 1787, and the setting for both the opening and closing scenes of my book. It is a strange sensation to follow in the footsteps of my hero, Colonel Picquart, past the sentries, across the courtyard, up the marble staircase -- with its suits of armour and a version of David's famous painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps -- and into the very office in which, 119 years ago, Picquart described Alfred Dreyfus's degradation ceremony to the then Minister of War, General Mercier. Even stranger is to encounter here Dreyfus's grandson, Charles, now in his eighties and the spitting image of his grandfather. Later, he sends me a picture of them together, taken in a garden in 1934, the year before the old man died. He remembers a kind, quietly spoken, dignified person, which is exactly how the modern M. Dreyfus appears.

Also in the room is Roman Polanski, who is preparing to film the book. I introduce him to Dreyfus. Polanski, who was born in Paris in 1933, asks him how he survived the war. …

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