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.