Books: J'accuse as latest news: I, Dreyfus by Bernice Rubens Little, Brown, pounds 16.99, 278pp

Could a Dreyfus Affair happen in Britain, where prejudice is so polite? Bryan Cheyette on an update of the scandal that rocked the fin- de-siecle

BERNICE RUBENS'S fiction has always been preoccupied with the psychopathology of everyday life. In her early novels, in the 1960s and 1970s, children are condemned to partial lives by their parents (especially mothers) and are unable to function outside families. One of her protagonists refuses to emerge from the womb, another is condemned to live longer than she would like. Rubens's tone is one of black humour as her grotesque characters are invariably pushed to the margins of existence.

In recent years, Rubens - who was born in Cardiff to Russian-Jewish parents - has moved from family life to broader historical concerns. Since the 1980s, her novels have incorporated would-be messiahs and visionary housewives as well as accounts of Jewish persecution and migration in Europe. Encompassing transvestism, psychiatry and brain-transplants, as well as murder and war, she combines whimsy with despair.

I, Dreyfus, her 21st novel, continues these more expansive themes by updating the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906). It is perhaps fitting, as we move into a new era, that a scandal which prefigured the anti-Semitism of the first half of the 20th century should now be re-examined. And the Affair has always been a rich source of inspiration. From Emile Zola on, the wrongful imprisonment of Captain Dreyfus for espionage has resulted in a well-spring of French self- examination. In Britain, alas, we had to rely on Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton to confirm that Alfred Dreyfus really was guilty, and those dreadful Republicans got it all wrong. Chesterton's cuddly detective, Father Brown, concludes in this vein in a story published in 1914, eight years after the charges of treason were finally dropped.

Rubens argues, in characteristically bleak terms, that the "Dreyfus syndrome" continues today. Her novel takes the basic ingredients of the Affair (and the name Alfred Dreyfus) and applies them to contemporary English life. In her account, Sir Alfred Dreyfus is a successful educationalist who becomes headmaster of a prestigious public school. His fatal flaw, however, is that he hides his Jewishness in an essentially Christian institution. Like the original Dreyfus, he is finally found guilty of being a Jew.

A good deal of the novel is concerned with the deleterious effects of Jewish assimilation on Dreyfus. His "life of deception" is a result of his parents' refusal to come to terms with the Holocaust and their brush with death in Paris during the war. Dreyfus and his brother, Matthew, are raised in a small English village and become "closet Jews". His career and knighthood turn out to be a false ticket to respectability.

Rubens seems to blame Dreyfus's denial of his Jewishness for an anti- Semitic conspiracy which finds him guilty of child-murder. When his Jewish sister-in-law refuses to support him, and changes her name, she becomes "a nothing, a hollowness in an empty space". Dreyfus's own account from his prison cell, which cleverly alternates with the book's storyline, is really a rediscovery of himself as a Jew: "two thousand years of memory" come flooding back to him and he finally becomes the most pious of Jews. But the continuation of a racial essence over millennia (accompanied by Yiddish lullabies and Hebrew prayers) is precisely what Dreyfus's enemies believe defines "the Jew".

It is a pity to witness the descent into moralising in a novelist with such a refreshingly bizarre imagination. I, Dreyfus is divided into good (that is identifying) Jews and bad (that is inhuman) anti-Semites.

Rubens is well aware that in England, as opposed to France or Germany, "anti-Semitism is of the most courteous kind". But much of her energy is focused on the Nazi-like campaign that condemns Dreyfus. Although written with verve, this quest for Atonement (or "At-Onement") results in the end in a rather flat and sentimental reworking of history.

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn