A Review of Jean Findlay’s
Soldier, Spy, and Translator
Originally published in the
Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2015
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $30
Discussing Marcel Proust’s vast novel In Search of Lost Time in his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov wrote that C.K. Scott Moncrieff “died while translating the work, which is no wonder.” At more than 1.2 million words and running into seven overflowing volumes, this multi-faceted mega-novel contains such an overwhelming portrait of the interior and exterior world that no individual English translator has ever taken it on again. In 1981, Terence Kilmartin revised Scott Moncrieff’s translation according to the 1954 French edition, and then in the late eighties D.J. Enright revised it again, this time according it to the new Pléiade edition, and then in the late nineties Penguin books forsook Moncrieff altogether and broke the task up among seven new translators, one for each volume. Each subsequent translation has brought the novel closer to Proust’s actual words and intentions, which is arguably the most important consideration, but none has captivated the imagination the way that Scott Moncrieff’s did in the 1920s. One of the truly magical reading experiences available to English-language readers, his version, called Remembrance of Things Past after Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, largely paraphrases and recasts Proust’s labyrinthine sentences into an English that’s meant to mirror the original in ambience rather than in exactitude, and although it’s become obsolete, his was the version that dramatically altered the course of English and American Modernism. While he’s been rightfully accused of “prettifying” Proust’s original, Scott Moncrieff still did an immense service to the English language, and a new biography by his grand-niece Jean Findlay largely sets the record straight about this remarkable translator.
Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy, and Translator is in equal parts literary biography, intricate family chronicle, brutal war narrative, spy novel, spiritual examination, sex farce, and entirely all-compassing portrait of a lost era. Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff (Scott Moncrieff is his compound family name) was by most standards a complicated and contradictory figure—a gay Catholic soldier, writer/critic/translator, aesthete, and spy—but in this searching and thoroughgoing biography, all his parts adhere together into an integrity rarely seen in our modern age of fractured meaning. Not at all a family apologia, this is instead a richly layered excavation of the spiraling strata of letters, diaries, writings, documentary records, and reminiscences about a man for whom life had purpose and sense, and who created a time and place in the universe for himself that he genuinely loved. A friend and colleague of Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, the Waugh family, Robert Graves, Noël Coward, and Wilfred Owen, among countless others, Scott Moncrieff cast an enormous figure in the literature and mind of his time, and Findlay does a seriously impressive job of drawing together every imaginable mention of him in the era’s ceaselessly proliferating remembrances of things past.
|C.K. Scott Moncrieff,|
painted by Edward Stanley (1919)
Like Proust, Scott Moncrieff was born into an upper-middle-class family devoted to public service and was a sensitive child who as a young man leaned toward literary dandyism. Both writers immersed themselves in poetry and art, and both were fascinated by Catholic iconography and significantly found an early idol in aesthetic art critic John Ruskin. Unlike Proust, though, who due to infirmity was barely able to fulfil his obligatory military service, Scott Moncrieff was thrust into the darkest pit of the First World War, where he fully embraced Catholicism and maintained a shockingly indefatigable spirit among all the horror. Findlay reconstructs battles with extraordinary vividness and rigor, digging as deep into the military archives as she does into personal memoirs, giving as comprehensive a view of Scott Moncrieff’s battalion within the ever-shifting military theater as she does of his own individual war experience. Although she thankfully doesn’t try to ape Proust’s style, she follows threads in the same way he does, and the details that she focuses on form a Proustian trail of scintillating imagery, such as the shards of the destroyed Ypres cathedral’s stained glass that he found and carried with him and then passed parts of to another fellow-soldier, or the Bible in which he dutifully noted every time and place he took communion while serving, forming an intricate military and spiritual itinerary across Europe.
Although very seriously wounded in battle, Scott Moncrieff remained largely unfazed by the terribleness of it all, unlike so many of his friends who were stricken with what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder. Seeing innumerable fellow combatants devoured by this unprecedented new kind of war, he actually seemed to have a positive experience as a soldier. Part of this was because of his new faith, which made everything seem magical and sacred—a common phenomenon during times of extreme terror—but part of it was that he was simply blessed with solid mental health, and it’s thoroughly remarkable to read the biography of a literary person who just didn’t suffer the way that so many other sensitive people do. He does grow quite a bit, however, especially after nearly losing his leg in battle. Serving from the home front after a very long recuperation, he attempted to steer his friends and fellow poets to safer assignments, and his inability to keep the remarkable Wilfred Owen alive marked a serious turning point for him. Having been one of the poet-critics to foster and tutor the budding new poet, encouraging him to explore the assonance and consonance of the Old French martial epic the Song of Roland, which Scott Moncrieff was translating into English as a kind of solace for no longer being able to fight himself, he saw Owen’s lightning-like artistic development far eclipse his own, and it’s after the junior poet’s death in battle that he stopped thinking of himself as a poet anymore.
Turning toward translation after the success of his version of the Song of Roland, he followed it with the similarly bellicose Beowulf, and then he found his true purpose: Proust. For many people, reading Proust for the first time is a nearly religious experience, and to see Scott Moncrieff become totally consumed with it is a similarly thrilling experience. At the same time he took an assignment as a low-level spy for England in Mussolini’s Italy under the cover of the passport office, a job he’d partly created when he was at the War Office, and combining this with his translation fees, he was able to support an ever-expanding network of family and non-family dependents. Living in fascist Italy also allowed him a much freer sex life than he’d had in Edwardian England—a terrible irony if there ever was one—and he recounted it all in hilarious detail in his life-long correspondence with Vyvyan Holland, one of Oscar Wilde’s sons. As gleefully promiscuous a translator as he was a lover, his insatiable interests often took him away from Proust as he became sidetracked by Stendahl and then discovered Pirandello, who was his other major contribution to English letters. Part of this was foot-dragging over the translation of Sodom and Gomorrah, fearing that Proust’s frank depictions of homosexuality would run him afoul of English obscenity laws, and unfortunately this cost him a lot of time and resulted in an even more euphemistically paraphrased translation, which is one of this remarkable biography’s only true bummers.
Regarding Scott Moncrieff’s faith and sexuality, Findlay makes the extraordinary point that part of Catholicism’s appeal for him was that it offered him perpetual forgiveness, which was a stark contrast to the unbending Protestantism of his native Scotland. For him Catholicism was a religion that actually allowed and expected him to be a sinner. Although seemingly a nonbeliever herself, Findlay’s portrait of her great-uncle’s faith experience is imbued with the magic of a G.K. Chesterton or Graham Greene novel, making his rapid life and death (at age forty, from cancer, with a volume of Proust left to go) feel nonetheless whole and satisfying, because that’s how it felt to him. Entirely humbled by greater writers and having recognized his own intermediate role, as his translations swept England and America he even turned down an advance to write a novel of his own. Not at all unctuous or self-aggrandizing, he was simply a happy servant of literature and life whose individualized niche allowed him to shine in his own way. Similarly, this surprisingly luminous biography highlights its subject without drawing excessive attention to itself, yet it nonetheless glows too. Findlay holds Scott Moncrieff up to our fascinated attention, and after a while the reader begins to notice Findlay’s own varied and intricate attentiveness just as much. As with Proust, the reader marvels at how much and how well she notices, and at her seemingly limitless resourcefulness. Unlike Scott Moncrieff and Proust himself, who were both unable to finish their lives’ work, Findlay seems with this book to have actually recaptured lost time.