The Scottish man of letters, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, is mostly known for introducing Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, to the English-speaking world. His translation is still thought by many lovers of Proust to be a classic; and it is in large part responsible for the eponymous translation prize still awarded annually in the UK for literary excellence in French to English translation.
Not surprisingly, though, a translator’s biography often goes unnoticed. After all, part of a translator’s role is to play second fiddle to the author. The translator is supposed to disappear. But C.K. Scott Moncrieff didn’t disappear. His presence was redolent on every page, devoted to matching the literary quality of every sentence he translated. Joseph Conrad was among those who praised Moncrieff’s translations as often being of better literary quality than their original. No mean feat, to say the least.
Thanks to a recent biography by Jean Findlay, Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator, the times of Scott Moncrieff (“Charles” from here on out) are far from being lost. Biographies like Findlay’s are crisp air in cramped and stuffy literary rooms of ideology. Findlay paints an honest picture of a complex man without a hint of political agenda or polemic—a temptation that, given Charles’s sexuality and religion and the battles raging today concerning the relation between the two, could have easily spawned an ideologically freighted biography. Happily, we are given a portrait of a man rather than a marionette of ideas.
Charles was a devoutly orthodox Catholic, gay, and a highly decorated war hero of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers who worked for one of the twentieth century’s great literary giants: G.K. Chesterton—that fat, frolicking, beer-imbibing word wizard who nearly convinced even Franz Kafka he’d found God in a godless time. In today’s world, where large swaths of the population refuse to see beyond their various cookie-cutter ideologies, Charles would be an utter enigma. He was what all good men should be: a contradiction; and he sought what all good men should seek: divine grace.
Charles was born to educated, middle-class Presbyterian parents in Scotland on 25 September 1889. Early on in childhood his parents recognized a predilection and precocity for all things literary and aesthetic; and scarcely could he have inherited a better familial atmosphere for his gifts to flourish. Before the ripe age of eight, Findley tells us, he was already reading “Stevenson, Milton, Wordsworth, Arnold, George Herbert and Ruskin. These were not the usual texts given to small boys to develop an interest.” Both parents were avid readers and published writers with strong pedigrees of educational rigour. “We were made for better things than to be wealthy,” wrote Charles’s grandmother; they were above all else to be highly educated, wise, virtuous, and generous citizens before accumulating vast sums of wealth—an ideal that Charles would later take to heart, giving large portions of his wealth away to those in need.
As a young man studying classical literature at the prestigious Winchester College boarding school, Charles fell into the company of a London literary group made up mainly of gays like himself; excepting that a great deal of them were, unlike Charles at the time, Catholic converts. Notable among the group was Robert Ross, a good friend of the late Oscar Wilde who worked tirelessly to repair Wilde’s posthumous reputation scarred by his infamous trial.
It was also through this group wherein Charles met a lifelong friend in Vyvyian Holland, one among two sons of Wilde, with whom he would exchange numerous letters throughout the years, often filled with bawdy humor such as this particular encouragement to Holland about possibly translating Stendhal into English: “You can do it [translate Stendhal] straight on the typewriter without even stopping to masturbate, as in the case of Proust.”
Findlay writes of this early period that, “Charles felt close to the religious inspiration of Wilde’s work, and he was told by Robert Ross of the author’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism and of Wilde’s description of the Roman Catholic Church as being ‘for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do’.” And that during Wilde’s “time at Trinity College, Dublin, and later in prison, Wilde had pored over the works of Augustine, Dante and Cardinal Newman.”
It was Catholicism’s truthful reckoning of human nature as something flawed and confused, yet nonetheless shook-foiled (as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it) with the glory of God, that appealed most strongly to this group and that would later grip Charles as well. “The Church,” as Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, “is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” It was the Catholic Church, Findley writes, that “offered the forgiveness that society could not provide” this group of literary men. In other words, it was the Church’s doctrine of grace, rather than solely the aestheticism of the Church, that drew them into its fold.
Before Charles was able to produce his masterful translations, he would endure the hells of the First World War, which ruthlessly corroded the isles’ men into a small remnant of tortured souls. While the war was certainly hell, Charles believed it could also test the mettle of virtues such as courage, perseverance and self-sacrifice—and possibly even ignite faith. Like Chesterton and many others of his day, Charles was a firm believer in the cultivation of chivalry; so much so that he devoted considerable time and talent to translating the Song of Roland (for which Chesterton wrote the introduction) into lyrical English as a paean to the courage of his fellow soldiers, a poem he wanted understood “in the light of many of the aspirations, intentions and even despairs of today.”
The war ruined Charles’s health. Alongside the mental terrors suffered from battle memories and the deaths of many close friends, he would hobble about on a limp leg and struggle against recurring bouts of trench fever the rest of his short life. What was once the bright face of a young and strong and handsome man was now a broken visage of a war-torn man. Despite such difficulties, however, Charles was immensely productive. He seemed to have been one of those mysterious souls who could fit a week’s worth of work into a single day, and yet still have time for an enviable social life with the leading literary figures of his time.
Chivalry and literature being as they were very important to Charles, it was his devotion to Catholicism that loomed largest in his heart and mind. His faith was “as absorbing to him as his translation of Proust,” writes Findlay. And above all else, Charles wrote, “Christianity is characteristic of our armies far more nearly universal than courage or cowardice, or drunkeness or sobriety or chastity or the love of plunder.” In the fog of war and virtue and vice, Charles clung to the clarity of Christian doctrine: the belief that nothing—neither death nor life, height nor depth—can separate humanity from the love of God. “Charles’s faith in life after death was powerful and orthodox. Death through sacrifice for one’s friends meant Glory, and Glory was an experience of God’s presence.” His body decaying in the battlefields of France, Charles picked up his pen after confession with the Brigade Chaplain and wrote: “So now I am a proper papist. As we left, the Sacristan, who had been tidying up things, said very kindly, ‘C’est un nouveau frère en Jesus Christ.’” Findlay nicely describes his conversion:
“It was not a flash of light on the road to Damascus that turned Charles towards Catholicism but a steady tramp through France and the dramatic appearance of a devastated world. France had something to do with it; his aesthetic and historical interests were in art and buildings inspired by the Catholic spirit – pre-Reformation churches and cathedrals in Britain, the towered cities of France and the steady stream of chapels and wayside monuments to the Madonna in the Low Countries. However it was more by observing other people that Charles was inspired to conversion.”
For an aesthetic mind like Charles’s, there is no doubt that Catholicism’s long and strong obsession with beauty would have kindled a flame; upon seeing Rouen Cathedral, he would have seen and thought the same as John Ruskin, that it was an embodiment of “Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience.” But most importantly it was Catholic lives that compelled him: Chesterton, Waugh, Knox, Ross and his Catholic comrades celebrating mass in old French churches in the midst of suffering and death.
After the war and his conversion, Charles’s most significant endeavor was to bring Proust’s eight-volume masterpiece, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, to the English reader. This was not easy. Proust was still alive when Charles finished Swann’s Way, and he was by no means recognized immediately as a living literary legend. Thus Charles had to put forth a considerable effort to ignite interest in Proust, which included pulling together a compilation of essays in praise of Proust’s work by notable literary figures. If the first volume had flopped, there was a good chance Charles would have had difficulty selling translations of the remaining volumes to a publisher. Of course Charles pulled it off to great acclaim and praise, earning Proust’s admiration as well. Joseph Conrad wrote to Charles saying he “was more interested and fascinated by your rendering than by Proust’s creation. One has revealed to me something and there is no revelation in the other… [You have] a supreme faculty akin to genius…”
It wasn’t only Proust he was translating during this period of rapid work. He was also working on various novels by Stendhal, including The Red and Black, as well as tirelessly persuading publishers to get Pirandello’s works into English. He was, as Findlay says, “chasing lost time”:
“Having spent the flower of his youth on the war, he felt that he was chasing lost time for the last ten years of his life. This feeling of being hounded by time led to a frenetic work schedule, and him publishing nineteen volumes of difficult translation, writing thousands of letters and neglecting his physical health. It is unlikely he ever cooked himself a meal, relying on black coffee and wine by day and dining out at night where he was celebrated as a first rate entertainer by his friends. Proust wrote a slow exploration in search for lost time, but Charles was actively chasing time, he was a man never at rest; constantly making unnatural demands on himself, leading an action-packed life.
The rose was wilting. Charles’s body could endure no more. He succumbed to stomach cancer at only 39. His last days were spent in Rome, cared for by the nuns of the convent of St. Joseph. Here he kept up correspondence with T.S. Eliot while being visited by his many friends. Chesterton made the pilgrimage and read Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin as Charles lie in bed. And a fortnight before his death Evelyn Waugh arrived, giving Charles his “first blissful evening in months.”
The last days of C.K. Scott Moncrieff were spent making last rites. “Charles,” writes Findlay, “a man of forty, was certain that the consecrated host carried by the nun was the body of Christ.” “You could say,” she adds, “that his conversion to Catholicism freed his spirit. He discovered the sacrament of confession, where man is reconciled with himself and God, not trapped in guilt, and this gave his spirit flight.”