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Reviewed by:
Gilbert Bonifas. George Orwell: L'Engagement. Paris: Didier Erudition, 1984. 502 pp. No price given.

This is an intellectual biography of Orwell from 1922 to 1938 and beyond, centered on the ideological content and context of The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. Professor Bonifas tries to show that with Wigan Pier, despite a bit of unorthodoxy, Orwell moved squarely into the camp of Marxist socialism, though his experiences in the Spanish Civil War turned him into an emotional Utopian socialist who first could not perceive political reality and then could only be hopelessly disillusioned by it.

The book is a reworking of a Doctorat d'Etat—that peculiarly French super-doctorate whose main requirement seems to be sheer bulk—and it shows. Professor Bonifas is slow. No doubt this is partly due to the Doctorat genre—eighty-five words just to tell us that Orwell probably talked politics with his friends!—and partly to the problem of audience: the lengthy summaries of chapter after chapter of Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia are presumably for French readers who do not know Orwell—but then what would they be doing with a 500-page study about one period of his life?

In one case the slowness is a function of an oddity in the author's thought. He twice asks how it is that Part Two of Wigan Pier (a notoriously free-swinging, highly personal attack on the British left) was not unanimously applauded by its left-wing public; he then takes over a hundred pages to answer his own question (Orwell attacked socialists but not socialism; his views of the USSR and of the classes in Britain were those of the Adelphi group but not of other British leftists). One may think this merely another of the author's elephantine rhetorical strategies, but it actually adumbrates his conclusion: the true zenith of Orwellian socialism is to be found in the second part of The Road to Wigan Pier. When Professor Bonifas is not ponderous, he is quirky.

This study raises serious questions of methodology. The author claims he is using a sociological approach (well, socialisante) in the line of Lucien Goldmann or of Orwell himself. In reality the constant search for "influence"—his favorite word—puts him closer to the old sorbonnard school of Gustave Lanson. However, in the most interesting parts of his study, the sections on Spain and after, Professor Bonifas emphasizes the influence not of texts or ideas but of events, and here he brusquely turns to another approach. The effect of the Spanish war on Orwell was not an intellectual one, he says, but a transformation of his subconscious mind causing him to make an affective transfer from 1936 Spain to 1941 England. Now I am not sure if this is true or not, but I am sure it is the first time in his lengthy study that Bonifas has appealed to psychoanalytic concepts. That he [End Page 320] does so crudely and summarily does not obscure the methodological poverty of the purely "intellectual"—not psychological, not even truly sociological—biography that has come before.

David Ball
Smith College
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