The First English (Scottish?) Proust
Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator
Chatto and Windus, 2014
Dante claimed that there were two possible justifications for autobiography: firstly, the need to defend oneself; secondly, the possibility that one’s story might have universal relevance. His model for the first was Boethius and for the second Augustine. The same might be thought of biography, and Jean Findlay’s Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff arguably has elements of both. Moncrieff is remembered as the first translator into English of Proust’s multi-volume √Ä la recherche du temps perdu, which he published from 1922 (incidentally, the year of Proust’s death) until his own death in 1930. Controversially, but with good Shakespearean precedent, Moncrieff gave his translation the title Remembrance of Things Past, and his text was to form the basis of later revised, completed translations of Proust’s magnum opus by Terence Kilmartin and D.J. Enright. Nonetheless, as Findlay shows, Moncrieff’s life was much richer and more diverse than Proust-obsessed posterity usually cares to acknowledge. With regard to biography as defence, parts of Chasing Lost Time read as if Findlay were setting out to defend Moncrieff’s reputation. An early hurdle in this respect is Moncrieff’s failure to follow his brother Colin to Oxford. Potential applicants should take note of this cautionary tale: the failure is imputed to a poor reference from the headmaster at Winchester College, apparently occasioned by Moncrieff’s publication of a raunchy story in the school magazine, which shocked parents and teachers alike but which Findlay is careful to assert was “not erotic.” Less imputable to prejudice is, however, Moncrieff’s failure to pass the Oxford entrance exam on his second time navigating the application procedure because of lousy marks in Greek and mathematics. More darkly, Findlay also attempts to clear Moncrieff of accusations that he seduced Wilfred Owen and was partly responsible for Owen’s death only days away from the end of the First World War. Few facts are known about the former case, but in the latter Moncrieff was implicated because, while working for the War Office after having retired from active service due to an injury, he failed to keep the shell-shocked Owen from returning to the Front. Moncrieff was, accordingly, ostracised after the war by mutual friends, including many of the surviving war poets (Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, & Co.). Whatever the truth of these matters, a side effect of Findlay’s narration is a recognition of the artificial nature of our canon of war poetry, which might benefit from including some of Moncrieff’s light war poetry or his friend Philip Bainbrigge’s refreshing parody of “If I should die” alongside the alternately patriotic and grisly standards. Owen’s death, though, provoked Moncrieff to renounce poetry and to refocus on his work as a frequently acerbic reviewer and as a translator.
Besides defensive elements, this biography also displays universal and even Augustinian characteristics. Moncrieff underwent a conversion to Catholicism during life in the trenches, and remained a devout Catholic up to his death in Rome. Moreover, conversion aside, Findlay usefully constructs a parable of Moncrieff as, if not an Everyman, a man who is able to represent, in miniature, an entire generation. In this respect, Moncrieff links many great writers of the early decades of the twentieth century; he numbered amongst his friends No√´l Coward and Oscar Wilde’s son; he was a devotee of Pirandello; Evelyn Waugh wanted to be his secretary; and he corresponded with numerous writers and intellectuals including the likes of T.S. Eliot and, in later years, E.R. Curtius. In the epilogue, Findlay admits that Moncrieff was “a perfect example of a man of his time”, and nowhere is this clearer than in his education and friendships. Yet Findlay begins by warning the reader that the biographee is “a man of contradictions”, and, appropriately if surprisingly, it even turns out that Moncrieff—Soldier, Spy and Translator—spent the last years of his life combining his translation work with spying on the early days of Mussolini’s fascist Italy.
This biography is timely for two reasons. Most importantly, this hymn to Moncrieff comes in the wake of the new (now not so new) Penguin translation of Proust (2002), edited by Christopher Prendergast. The Penguin translators of Proust aimed for fidelity to the original text as conceived after decades of genetic work on manuscripts, drafts, and proofs, and called into question the accuracy and reliability of their predecessor. Appropriately, then, Findlay’s biography seeks to remind the general public of the continuing value and impressiveness of Moncrieff’s endeavours, an aim which resonates with the first justification of (auto)biography cited above, namely that of (self-)defence. In this respect, Findlay not only defends Moncrieff, but also takes this opportunity to highlight how Moncrieff’s translation was the medium through which many of the great Anglophone modernists—including Woolf and Joyce—accessed Proust. The suggestion is no doubt that we could do worse than to follow in their footsteps. As in Jorge Luis Borges’s account of translations of the Thousand and One Nights, Findlay argues that some readers of Proust, including Joseph Conrad, considered Moncrieff’s translation to be superior to the original—though it is debatable how far one ought to take such statements to heart. Less important, in terms of timeliness, but similarly intriguing, is the belated opportunity which this book provides to use Moncrieff as a spokesperson for Scottish independence, with Findlay noting Moncrieff’s support for the early SNP and his assertion that “the Scots are quite as capable of governing themselves as the Swiss—and have as much right as they to do so.” For a book published in late September 2014, the quotation of this statement seems intentionally controversial.
Also potentially controversial is Findlay’s relationship to Moncrieff: she is his great-grand-niece. On the one hand, this gives Findlay unparalleled access to box after box of letters, diaries, photographs, and notebooks, and the patience and devotion to sift through them. On the other hand, the reader is likely to be at least initially suspicious of family interests that might interfere with the story or lead in the direction of hagiography and/or censorship. Indeed, such fears seem justified when Findlay admits in the introduction that she had thought that Moncrieff had remained celibate after the war until (after having drafted the book) she discovered letters proving otherwise, which forced her to revise the book by adding “nuggets of sex.” Slowly, though, Findlay gains the confidence of her reader through enthralling storytelling, much citation from Moncrieff’s letters and poetry, and careful footnoting throughout.
In the end, the weakness of the book is not nepotism, but rather Findlay’s reticence about drawing connections between Proust and Moncrieff. Findlay repeatedly misses opportunities to compare the two, perhaps unwittingly reflecting in this the failed chance encounter between Proust and Moncrieff in Cabourg when Proust was twenty-six and Moncrieff only six. In private, Proust and Moncrieff seem to have shared many traits: survival on coffee alone; late-night forays to attend lavish dinner parties with friends; long experience of ill health; a passion for genealogies; appreciation of French Gothic cathedrals; prolific devotion to many correspondents; and a love of Balzac and Stendhal. More could also be made of the fact that Proust was, like Moncrieff, a translator, publishing translations of Ruskin in French early in his writing career. It also goes unremarked by Findlay that Moncrieff’s reputation as a translator of one author alone strangely echoes the general view of Proust as the author of only one book, with both assumptions being far from the truth.
It is, nonetheless, a particular delight of Chasing Lost Time that it reveals Moncrieff as much more than the first translator of Proust, however impressive this accolade might be. Instead, Findlay shows that Moncrieff was a prolific translator, beginning with a publication of the Chanson de Roland, a medieval chivalric epic which he hoped would be newly relevant to generations scarred by the First World War; continuing the medieval theme with the letters of Abelard and Heloise, Beowulf,and other Anglo-Saxon texts; progressing to Stendhal; and, during his final years in Italy, enthusiastically undertaking to translate all of Pirandello and being amongst the first to recognise the Italian playwright’s genius. Moncrieff even contemplated translating the complete works of Boccaccio (both in Italian and medieval Latin), which he hoped would allow him to survive what Anne Carson has called “the desert of After Proust.”
Some of Findlay’s assessments of Moncrieff’s work as a translator are slightly marred by a lack of awareness of context and convention, occasionally leading her to exaggerate the extent of Moncrieff’s innovations. She observes early on, for instance, that “no other translator prefaced their works with dedicatory poems to their friends,” a declaration which belies the fact that Moncrieff inherited this habit from—or at least shared it with—many, many nineteenth-century translators, not to mention translators before and since. More worrying is Findlay’s at times reductive, almost dismissive, characterisation of literature as a way of distancing oneself from reality. Findlay sees Moncrieff as “protected from real horror by his own poetic bubble” during the war, failing to recognise the Proustian truth that literature might instead allow oneself to see the world more clearly.
However, this is to nitpick. Lawrence Venuti famously bemoaned the invisibility of the translator, but in this book we find an encouraging exception to that rule, that is, not only a translator whose life is as rich and varied as that of the original author, but also—and this is no doubt a much rarer phenomenon—a life which someone has, happily, bothered to narrate.
Jennifer Rushworth is a Junior Research Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford.