- Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy, and Translator by Jean Findlay
Findlay’s life of her mother’s great-uncle, drawing largely on unpublished papers handed down to her, gives a respectful and unremittingly detailed account of the social, sexual, and family relations of an Edwardian Anglo-Scottish littérateur who just happened to become the translator of Marcel Proust. Scott Moncrieff, referred to consistently in this book as Charles, acquired a toehold in the world of letters before the outbreak of the Great War, in which he served as an officer in the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. Wounded by friendly fire in 1916, he worked for the War Office in London and then became personal assistant to Lord Northcliffe, who put him in charge of copyediting foreign news for the Times. In the 1920s, with a cover job in the passport section of the British consulate in Rome, he monitored Italian military activities for British intelligence. No doubt weakened by his war wounds, he developed cancer and died in 1930, at forty years of age.
Scott Moncrieff began a career in translation when he found his own notions of gallantry and valor glorified in the Song of Roland and Beowulf. As he admitted to having never read a word of Old French or Anglo-Saxon beforehand, he must have used existing modernizations in order to rewrite these ancient poems for himself. What he recognized in Proust when he first read him on the appearance of volume 2 of A la recherche in 1919 were themes of a different order but of equally direct personal concern. The interwoven strands of homosexuality and Catholicism in Proust’s writing “spoke to his heart,” as Findlay puts it. Scott Moncrieff, who was a promiscuous homosexual despite his attachment to military proprieties and his conversion to Catholicism, began translating for himself without knowing how long the book would come to be and also without knowing French very well. “I know comparatively few French words and no grammar,” he wrote to a friend at that time. Findlay adds an adverb intended to reassure us (“He wrote jokingly to a friend”), but I suspect the joke is all her own. Scott Moncrieff offers a fascinating example of how you can learn a language by translating it; in addition, translating transformed him from a marginal figure into a lasting presence in the world of letters. Alas, Findlay gives us no more than twenty pages [End Page 519] on “Charles’s” Proust. The social and literary context supplied by the rest of the book certainly helps us to understand how this implausible and epochal translation came about, but those readers not particularly concerned with the intricate and extensive social networks of upper-class Edwardian gays may get a little impatient with the succession of parties, outings, entertainments, and squabbles that the copious correspondence of Scott Moncrieff reveals.
David Bellos is professor of French, Italian, and comparative literature at Princeton University and a recipient of the Prix Goncourt de la Bibliographie and the Man Booker International Translator’s Award. His books include Georges Perec: A Life in Words, Jacques Tati: His Life and Art, Roman Gary: A Tall Story, and Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, as well as translations of works by Perec, Gary, Georges Simenon, and Ismail Kadare.