This valuable monograph originated in Marc Wildemeersch’s De man die Belg wilde worden. Georges Kopp, commandant van George Orwell, published in the Netherlands in 2010. Now, most welcomingly, it is available in English. By and large the translation follows the Dutch original but its notes have been amplified and two chapters, four and five, have been inverted. Because I have been privileged to contribute a short Epilogue to the English edition I am in danger of merely repeating myself in introducing this study to prospective readers and that I hope to avoid.
When we try to understand the personalities, attributes, and actions of those we know personally or about whom we write we quite often come across puzzles of action or personality that we have difficulty in resolving. Orwell himself and a number of those whom he knew or with whom he corresponded present us with a number of such problems. Kopp is not singular in this respect but working out who he really was and how Orwell understood him is important both for Kopp, for Orwell, and, most sensitively, for his first wife, Eileen.
Perhaps I might take another man who has an even more shadowy relationship with Orwell to illustrate this problem. I began my working life in 1942 in the cutting rooms of the Crown Film Unit. Although we were concerned with actualité the small group of teenagers who worked there were fascinated by the work of Len Lye, an innovator in film and sculpture. We would play on the Moviolas not only copies of his short films – many painted in colour directly on to film stock – but also rejected lengths of film. None of us were familiar with Lye’s avant garde techniques and yet we were fascinated by what we saw. Could Orwell have been as interested as were we? Orwell seems not to have had a natural sympathy for documentary film if one goes by his few reviews of such films. He never mentions either of two of the most significant documentary films of the mid 1930s, two films which one would think would have attracted his attention and about which he might have had much to say – Housing Problems, 1935, and Enough to Eat?, 1936, both directed by Edgar Anstey, and both, ironically, sponsored by the gas industry. If you have never seen Housing Problems look at it with the illustrations of The Road to Wigan Pier before you and the text of that book in mind. One of the puzzles I was unable to resolve when assembling the Complete Works was what seems to be a letter from Len Lye to Orwell about the time that Lye made The Birth of the Robot, 1936. What had Lye and Orwell in common? (Incidentally, you can see on the internet all seven minutes of The Birth of the Robot, advertising a Shell-Mes lubricating oil, in glorious Gasparcolor and complete with Gustav Holst’s music.)
When I was editing the Complete Works I was nearly as puzzled by Georges Kopp as by Len Lye. Since then much fascinating information has been dug out, first by Bert Govaerts (reproduced in The Lost Orwell, the supplementary volume to the Complete Works), and now, by Marc Wildemeersch who enlarges significantly on Govaerts’s account in this most useful and intriguing biography. Extracts from the autobiography of David Crook (whom Gordon Bowker refers to in his biography) are usefully included. The aptly-named Crook was recruited to spy on Orwell and Kopp, even going so far as to observe Kopp when in prison with him. (Crook would later move to China and was imprisoned from 1967 to 1973 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution; he died in 1990.)
We are also introduced to even more shadowy figures such as Philippe Keun, and especially those in Kopp’s espionage ring near Marseille – R.O Stokes (who Kopp knew in Belgium and for whom he seems later to have worked briefly in London), Marc Jottard, André Jouve, Julien Paul (alias Polo), and a mysterious Mr Lance who, although confessing that Kopp ‘might be [in London] with the highest motives . . . might be up to no good’. The final chapter, sadly entitled ‘Downhill’ is particularly interesting. And there are amusing sidelights. Thus, Mr Wildemeersch mentions on p. 13 how Noam Chomsky, when showing how Stalinists twisted history, gets himself in a twist when describing Kopp as ‘a Trotskyist general’, something not even our Georges claimed.
As someone who has no facility in writing in any other language than English I am reluctant to suggest that there are slight infelicities in the English of this translation (should ‘ever’ on p.7, line 9 be ‘never’?) but far from marring the telling of this fascinating story they add to its immediacy and authenticity. I do regret, however, that there is no index. Nevertheless, this is an indispensable book for all interested in Orwell and, indeed, the machinations of espionage rings in World War II. How could it be otherwise when it features not only George Kopp but also Anthony Blunt! Would that someone could unravel the Orwell-Len Lye relationship as effectively.