There have been a number of biographies recently on minor or forgotten figures of literary modernism. Sarah Barnsley’s life of American modernist Mary Barnard and James Dempsey’s account of Dial editor and publisher Scofield Thayer are but two examples. Now we have Jean Findlay’s biography of her great-great uncle, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the first English translator of Marcel Proust. Findlay’s biography is a reminder not only of how small and interconnected the world of letters was before World War II but also of the important part editors and critics played in modernism’s early successes.
Scott Moncrieff is also a fascinating character in his own right. He was a Scottish Catholic, homosexual, friend of G.K. Chesterton and columnist for Chesterton’s The New Witness, war hero, and spy in Mussolini’s Italy. He was close to polymath Edward Marsh—Churchill’s private secretary—Wilfred Owen, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and many other notable figures.
Findlay starts with a long and mostly unnecessary history of the Scott Moncrieffs and an overly detailed account, stuffed with juvenilia, of C.K.’s early years. The essentials are that he was born on September 25, 1889, to a conservative Presbyterian judge and a literary mother. He was an obedient son, and he worked hard in school, hoping to go to Oxford like his older brother, but he failed the entrance exams—twice. So instead he studied law and English, the latter under George Saintsbury, at the University of Edinburgh, where he eventually won the prestigious Patterson Bursary for Anglo-Saxon translation—an early indication of his gift for languages.
While at Edinburgh, he would occasionally take the train to London to spend time with Robert Ross, a friend of Oscar Wilde’s and executor of his estate. How Scott Moncrieff met Ross is unclear but Findlay writes that “it certainly happened when Charles was sixteen.” It was through Ross that Scott Moncrieff came into contact with London literary figures and met Wilde’s son, Vyvyan, who became a lifelong friend.
Scott Moncrieff earned his law degree in 1912 and his degree in English literature in 1914. Throughout his studies, he was active member of the army cadet force, leading a group on a Canadian tour in the summer of 1912. In March 1913 he was appointed second lieutenant in the General Reserve. When England declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Scott Moncrieff received orders to join the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) at Dumfries and was sent to join the Third Reserve Battalion at Portland. He was given command of a battery of 9.2-inch guns and 90 men.
Once we get to the war, the superfluous details in Findlay’s account fade, and the biography picks up pace as she focuses on Scott Moncrieff’s surprising accomplishments and attitudes. The picture that emerges of him during the war is of a man who enjoyed the camaraderie of military life and was a gifted and courageous leader. At the time, British officers were drawn almost entirely from the upper classes. Some of them were unflappable under fire. Others weren’t. According to Findlay and the testimony of the men who served under him, Scott Moncrieff was recklessly brave.
He would spy out German positions himself and would occasionally lead his men into battle even though officers were supposed to remain behind (to shoot deserters). One of his men remembered him in these terms: “I can see him strolling about No Man’s Land as cool as if he were on the parade ground, seeking information and the position of the enemy … . On one occasion he brought back, as a souvenir, a German sandbag.” Over the course of the war, he won a Military Cross, the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, and other awards for service.
Before the war, many young men across Europe had looked forward to fighting. Not only did they see themselves following in the footsteps of the great classical warriors they had studied in school—Achilles, Odysseus, Julius Caesar—but they also believed that the war could be a sort of cleansing sacrifice that would lead to an era of great human achievement. The brutality of trench warfare turned this idealism on its head, and some of these men returned angry and disillusioned.
Not Scott Moncrieff. He was at Ypres and saw his fair share of slaughter, writing in one poem that he could hear “The blood of our brothers … crying from the ground.” Yet he continued to view the war as necessary and felt that poets such as Robert Bridges and Siegfried Sassoon presented an overly pessimistic picture of it in their poems.
In 1917, a British shell exploded in front of Scott Moncrieff as his unit was charging the German line. The blast shattered his leg, and while the doctors avoided amputation, he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. He also contracted trench fever—a disease transmitted by lice—earlier in the war, and the infection would rear its ugly head once or twice a year. During one of his many home leaves for this fever, he began writing for The New Witness—edited by G.K. Chesterton after his brother, Cecil, who had founded the periodical, died in 1916. The paper touted distributism, defended the family, and opposed loosening divorce laws. The poet and art critic Osbert Sitwell referred to it as that “queer bastard Catholic-Socialist-ultra-Conservative paper.”
Scott Moncrieff had converted to Catholicism in France. Part of the appeal of the Roman church was aesthetic. He was awestruck by the cathedral in Rouen and the beauty of the Mass’s Latin; he had also come into contact with a number of Catholics whose humanity and kindness inspired him. Another part of the appeal was the simplicity and freedom of confession. Findlay writes that in return for his repentance, Catholicism offered Scott Moncrieff “a release” from the burden of his sin—which was often sleeping with another man—and “the gift of absolution.”
His columns and reviews for The New Witness could be long and rambling, but he enjoyed the work and came to see himself as a critic and a man of letters more than a poet. After the war, he was hired for one year as the personal secretary of Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times, before taking up a position as sub-editor of the foreign desk at the newspaper.
When Scott Moncrieff first read Proust is unclear, but he had certainly done so by 1919, when he began translating sections of it privately. By then he had already produced a translation of the epic poem Le Chanson de Roland, which was published by Chapman and Hall to rave reviews. His translation of Beowulf, published in 1921, was also reviewed positively. When Edmund Gosse heard that he was working on a translation of Proust, he wrote to Scott Moncrieff to dissuade him from such a modern work: “Not here, O son of Apollo, are haunts meant for thee.” But Scott Moncrieff was undeterred. He signed a contract with Chatto to translate the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu and did much of it while he was working the night shift at The Times.
Proust’s long, complex sentences are difficult to translate. Scott Moncrieff had the added problem of working with an edition of the novel that had a number of typographical errors—such as extra or missing commas and pronouns—which further complicated his work. His newspaper experience helped. He was familiar with the sorts of errors that printers could make and was able to work around many of them, though not all.
His method of translation also helped. Like Ezra Pound and other modern translators, Scott Moncrieff opted for a translation that was the equivalent of the French but not a literal reproduction of each word in the original syntax. He would read a passage, write a quick translation in English, and read it out loud, often to a friend, revising the construction for clarity and style. This method also had the advantage of being faster than painstakingly translating each word, especially as he grew accustomed to Proust’s vocabulary and syntax.
The first volume of Proust’s masterpiece, which Scott Moncrieff titled Swann’s Way, was published in 1922 and earned favorable reviews in The Times and elsewhere. In a letter to Jacques Rivière, T.S. Eliot wrote that Scott Moncrieff was a succès éclatant—“booming success”—after the translation, and on the heels of this success he resigned from The Times and devoted himself to writing full time.
But it wouldn’t last. The previous year his brother, John, had accidentally shot himself, leaving behind a wife and two children, and Scott Moncrieff had promised to help support the family. While he often earned handsome advances for his translations, it was not enough to support himself and three others. In 1923, he was presented with the opportunity to work as a spy in Mussolini’s Italy—a job for which he was particularly well suited. Not only was he patriotic and brave but his work as a translator and journalist provided him with the perfect cover. Italy also appealed to Scott Moncrieff for other reasons. It was cheaper than England or Scotland, which made providing for his brother’s family easier. The climate was easier on his leg, and Italy’s attitude towards homosexuality was more lax than Britain’s.
His spy work consisted mostly of watching trains to monitor troop movements. He was also charged with keeping tabs on British citizens he came into contact with, to make sure they were not working for the Italian government, and with learning what he could from Italian gossip. Scott Moncrieff would end up remaining in Italy until his death in 1930, translating all seven volumes of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, several books by Stendhal, and two works by Luigi Pirandello. He entertained regular visitors from England and wrote thousands of letters, but he would never return home.
In all, Scott Moncrieff was a remarkable figure. He was a man of great talent and humility, devoting himself to a role that is often viewed as of secondary importance in the literary world. Yet without him, or with a less talented translator, it is likely that Proust would not have had the effect he did on modern literature. The story of great literature is more than just that of genius itself. For every Johnson, there must be a Boswell. For Proust, it was Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and edits the literary newsletter Prufrock.