Swann Songs

In 1919, C. K. Scott Moncrieff first approached an English publisher with a proposal to translate Du côté de chez Swann, the novel that Marcel Proust had finally been able to see published that same year to a favorable reception in France more than a half decade after he had been forced to pay for a private printing. Scott Moncrieff’s idea went nowhere. The British house he contacted, Constable & Co., wrote back that they had never heard of the author (and bafflingly referred to him as “Prevost”). The lack of commercial interest didn’t, however, deter Scott Moncrieff. Even though he was in the process of finishing a translation of the oldest surviving significant work of French literature, The Song of Roland, he had already become attached to the very different and very recent challenge of Proust, so he carried on with his own private translation without any commitment from a publishing house to back it up.

It is astonishing to recall that one of the most monumental translation efforts of the past hundred years—encompassing some 1.2 million words, in seven volumes—got its start in such a casual way, and from a writer who had scarcely made a name for himself as a man of letters. Scott Moncrieff didn’t have the literary bona fides of the poet Edwin Muir, who with his wife, Willa, introduced the work of Kafka, Heinrich Mann, and a number of other key German writers to an English audience. Nor was he a confidant of the author like H. T. Lowe-Porter, the translator-friend of Thomas Mann. In fact, unlike Lowe-Porter, Scott Moncrieff had barely any contact with the writer to whom he would dedicate a good chunk of his career. His sole successful communication with Proust came in October 1922, just a month before the great author’s death and two months after Swann’s Way had appeared from Chatto and Windus in the UK, when he received a courteous letter praising “the trouble you have taken in translating my Swann” while offering a gentle rebuke to Scott Moncrieff for his decision to translate the title of the entire work, À la recherche du temps perdu, as Remembrance of Things Past. That phrase from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 30,” while lovely, “cannot possibly mean what you say,” Proust wrote, registering a complaint that would dog Scott Moncrieff’s translation in both letter and spirit for times to come.

The rebukes have been more numerous and harsher at times over the past decades. Others have found plenty to fault in Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust—his sometimes purple prose (which Lydia Davis has called “dressy”), his reliance on faulty source materials, and the downright muddled passages in which he, perhaps out of sheer fatigue with the project, lost track of the narrative. Even before the copyright expired on the translation and a new English Proust began to appear in 2002, Scott Moncrieff’s publisher took to offering “revised” versions of his epic work. Terence Kilmartin first produced a reworking of the Scott Moncrieff translation in 1981, followed by a second update in 1992, by D. J. Enright, that used the Pléiade edition of the novel, considered by scholars to be the definitive version. It was only with this last that Scott Moncrieff’s defective title was jettisoned in favor of “In Search of Lost Time.” But as Jean Findlay reminds us in her new biography Chasing Lost Time, the fact that the second (and only other) English translation of Proust relied on seven translators (including Davis)—it being considered “beyond the capability of one single person to translate Proust”—only underscores how superhuman was the devotion and drive of Scott Moncrieff.

C. K. Scott Moncrieff, 1916. Courtesy Jean Findlay family archive

Findlay’s biography is the first of her distant relative Scott Moncrieff (1889–1930), the third son of a Scottish judge and a poetry-loving mother who drilled Milton and the biblical story of the Fall into the future translator’s head during his childhood. It offers a portrait not only of a figure inseparable from his service to Proust—which should prove invaluable to anyone interested in the history of In Search of Lost Time in English—but also of a kind of literary Zelig who popped up in three key periods of early-twentieth-century letters: the starched-collar London of the Edwardians, the devastated France of the World War I trench poets, and the dissipated Italy of a postbellum generation of aristos and aesthetes.

Scott Moncrieff possessed a bloodhound’s nose for literary elites of the moment, as early as his public school days. As a teenager at tony Winchester College, he used his time in London to embed himself in the homosexual coterie around Robert Ross, the literary executor of Oscar Wilde, who introduced him to Wilde’s son Vyvyan, one of Scott Moncrieff’s few lifelong friends and a recipient of the dirty doggerel he occasionally penned. He read Walter Pater and translated from the Greek and Latin while editing an ambitious student magazine, The Wykehamist. (In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell notes that during the war the future translator of Proust was known “in some circles as the author of Evensong and Morwesong, a bravely obscene story of adolescent fellatio which caused the suppression” of the school magazine when it appeared in 1908.) He spent more time with poetry than his studies, and, unable to pass the exams to enter Oxford, he retreated to Edinburgh and began to think about a literary career.

The outbreak of war interrupted Scott Moncrieff’s sojourn as a budding poet. Trained as an officer of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, he epitomized the anachronistic hopes of a generation that believed it would be home before the leaves had fallen. Deployed in France, he contracted the trench fever that would recur throughout the rest of his life. He survived the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, in which so many of his Winchester classmates were cut down. His own close call came in 1917, on April 23 (as he noted in his letters, the same date on the calendar as Shakespeare’s birth and Rupert Brooke’s death), when an errant shell destroyed his left leg and left him with shrapnel in his right.

Findlay is moving if somewhat overelaborate on the details of the young man at war (“Charles would have preferred a kilted regiment, like the 3rd Royal Scots—he thought men looked their best in kilts and enjoyed wearing one himself”). Nevertheless, she effectively captures Scott Moncrieff’s disenchantment and mental drift in the aftermath. He later dedicated many of his publications to friends who were lost in the war, including Wilfred Owen, whose work seemed finally to have cured the Scotsman of any illusions about his own prospects as a poet. Yet amid the carnage he discovered a new faith, becoming a steadfast convert to Catholicism in France, and somehow began to produce critical essays, often while in the trenches. His work appeared frequently in G. K. Chesterton’s The New Witness, and he paid particular attention to literature in translation. If the Great War is usually remembered as an incubator of poets, Scott Moncrieff was the rare critic and translator to find his voice amid the conflict.

Like a character from an Alan Hollinghurst novel who escaped into real life, Scott Moncrieff seems at some point to have brushed shoulders with virtually everyone of literary note, from minor Georgian poets to the Sitwells and Robert Graves, who snubbed him after he was reputed to have seduced Wilfred Owen. He tried and failed to interest his friends George Moore and Edmund Gosse in Proust (the latter “deplored Charles wasting his time translating the man he pronounced Prowst”), but he connected with T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad in his enthusiasm (the last declared Scott Moncrieff’s work an improvement on the original). He had connections in the War Office, too: Friends there found a place for him after the war in Mussolini’s Italy, where he relocated in 1923—officially as a translator, but in fact as an agent of British intelligence. In Italy he found himself at the center of a kind of perfect personal storm of interests: He was in a Catholic country that paradoxically had a relaxed attitude (at least compared to England, and at least in the 1920s) to homosexuality and a beckoning border to English writers bored with London. He thrived in the queeny expat circles of Florence and Pisa and Rome, seeming to swap his Stranger’s Child–ish role for one decidedly more out of Vile Bodies. Yet he somehow found time for his work as a translator. Filing reports on troop movements by day, he slaved over translations the rest of the time, pounding away on Proust but also churning out translations of Stendhal and The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (1925).

One of the surprises of Findlay’s biography is, in fact, Scott Moncrieff’s enthusiasm for a project that promised to open a new chapter in his life, the discovery of Pirandello’s work in Italy. While he worried whether his translation of Sodom and Gomorrah would violate English obscenity laws with its frank (though still somewhat self-censored) portrayal of homosexuality, he delighted in his new acquaintance, embarking on a “mission to propagate Pirandello . . . convinced the critics would compare his short stories to Tolstoy and de Maupassant and his plays to Chekhov.” When he proposed translating Pirandello’s complete works, he was shocked to find that once again his English publishers resisted. “The trouble with English people is that English people won’t read a book that requires the slightest effort,” he wrote to the same houses that were now urging him to finish his Proust translation. Eventually, he planned to undertake the Pirandello without a publisher and to absorb the costs himself—just as Proust had been forced to do in 1913, when he was unable to interest a publisher in the initial prewar edition of Du côté de chez Swann.

Findlay’s biography is an appealing portrait of a figure whose literary judgments were certainly idiosyncratic and unsystematic but whose enthusiasms, like his love for Baron Corvo’s Hadrian the Seventh, were deeply felt. Yet above all, it was Proust who changed his life. Before his death from cancer in Rome at age forty, Scott Moncrieff worried that the time he’d spent abroad had made English too foreign a language to him—a concern that may come as a surprise to decades of readers of his at times too-English-for-its-own-good Proust. It took an appalling amount of audacity on his part to English the very title of Proust’s work, but that audacity is what makes his encounter with a great text so worthy of remembering—which Findlay has happily done.

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.