He was neurasthenic, anxious, isolated. He lived the last years of his life in a cork-lined room. He wrote brilliantly and endlessly, his masterwork comprising seven closely typeset volumes in 3,200 pages. Born just after the Franco-Prussian War, he died only a few years after World War I ended, his lifespan taking in some of the most glorious days France has known. He knew them only secondhand, for he lived vicariously and in memory, a certain kind of sponge cake in particular firing his imagination.
If most of us do not know much about Marcel Proust, the great French novelist who wrote the classic series of novels collectively known as À la recherche du temps perdu, we know still less about the man who first translated his work into English—and who, for generations, was Proust as far as English-language readers were concerned. Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff began his work just as Proust was entering his final illness, and though Proust lived long enough to make a few snippy corrections to Scott Moncrieff’s labors, he passed away sure that his work was in good hands with the young Scottish writer. Indeed, Scott Moncrieff’s translation, though hesitant in spots, has justly earned a reputation as a work that not only represents the original well, but also adds something new and beautiful to the recipient language, sometimes even overshadowing its source.
Scott Moncrieff was only 40 when he died of cancer, just short of finishing the last volume of what he called Remembrance of Things Past. He had packed enough tragedy—and adventure—for five lives into his years. Even so, he has largely been forgotten, and ever more so with the passing years, now that Proust has found new translators. In her vigorous biography Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy, and Translator, his great-great niece, Jean Findlay, sets out to remember the great translator, who did much more besides, but who had been commemorated before only in a few mentions in lives of his contemporaries and in an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Growing up, over the dinner table, Findlay had heard only a little about her distinguished kin. “There were many stories and anecdotes about him,” she says, “but no more than any other deceased relative. It was a close family, and many were notable characters and all part of the ancestral picture.” Complicating the view of Scott Moncrieff at home was the fact that, like Proust, he was gay—which, in his time, was not just a source of scandal but also criminal. For that reason, Scott Moncrieff's life was not often discussed, which meant that Findlay, a prizewinning playwright in her native Scotland, had to do a lot of sleuthing in order to turn up relatives who had firsthand, useful information about a man who died long enough before she was born.
“There were two great aunts who remembered him personally and were fond of him,” Findlay recalls. “He was very kind and considerate to them in their childhood, corresponded with them and paid for their private education, as well as making them laugh when around. However, no one knew about his other life, and it fell to me to do the literary detective work, which was great fun.”
From that detective work, a portrait emerges of Scott Moncrieff as a true man of parts. A schoolmaster praised him as a boy who didn’t mind being ill in bed, so long as he had books to read—“only it must be literature,” he stressed. His mother read aloud to him, filling his mind with the great stories. He earned two degrees, one in law and the other in literature, at Edinburgh University.
Then the war came, and with it the death of a young man with whom he had fallen in love, and the deaths of so many others as well. At the Battle of Arras, after more than two years on the front lines, Scott Moncrieff was wounded so badly that he nearly lost a leg. He spent the rest of the war and the immediate postwar period working in intelligence at the War Office, where, as Findlay says, the man once characterized as “a masculine, muscular leader, and at the same time a great pansy” may have come into contact with another hero military and literary, T. E. Lawrence.
He lived through that terrible war. Some of Scott Moncrieff's war poems and short stories were published in his lifetime, including several that were edited by none other than T. S. Eliot. Even so, as Findlay notes, he is not remembered among the writers of the Great War, men such as Robert Graves, Basil Bunting, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.
Some of that has to do with the literary jealousies of the time, and some with a rumor that romantically linked Scott Moncrieff with Owen, who died in battle and was all but elevated to sainthood after. The first edition of Graves’s now-classic Goodbye to All That contained a titillating mention of their supposed tryst, though a lawsuit from Owen’s brother resulted in the offending text’s being suppressed. Graves and Scott Moncrieff never spoke to each other again, leaving for posterity an incident that, Findlay writes, “was shrouded in gossip, half-truths, and hypocrisy.”
Scott Moncrieff might be pleased at how some things from his time turned out. The rise of civil equality for gay people is one of them. Another is the fame that now surrounds Marcel Proust, in which he played a large role. Still another is the growing political stature of Scotland, whose freedom he championed, courting trouble on the political front as he did on the personal.
But Scott Moncrieff's ambitions as a writer were never satisfied, and his life was cut short before he could finish Remembrance of Things Past. He also was not able to move forward with his translations of Stendhal and the Italian writer Luigi Pirandello, whose books, Findlay notes, are “shorter and more easily digestible than Proust.” It is just one more sad note, if an accidental irony, that Pirandello in particular was much more to Scott Moncrieff's liking than Marcel Proust, the French novelist with whom he will forever be linked.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.