Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, September 5, 2014

Chasing Lost Time - The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy, and Translator by Jean Findlay

Chasing Lost Time The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff by Jean Findlay is a wonderful book.  I loved it. It was just a tremendous pleasure and very edifying and enriching work.  

I feel a great sense of gratitude to Jean Findlay, grand niece of C. K. Scott Moncrieff, for having written this great biography.  I feel an even greater sense of gratitude to Moncrieff for having translated Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (sometimes translated as In Search of Lost Time.) Reading it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  

Moncrieff (born 1889 Scotland, died 1930 Rome) began to love literature at a very early age, learning Greek and Latin in school, as was customary and largely teaching himself French and Italian.

I think and hope this book will get a lot of attention and be widely read in literate circles for many years.

Findlay has a deep empathy for her great uncle and the advantage of access to family members and friends.

Here are some of the things that readers of this book will appreciate, I think.

Moncrieff was openly gay, in an era when homosexual acts were punishable by prison.  He hid his sexual identity only when he feared the laws. Moncrieff's family when he was in college constantly invited pretty girls to family parties hoping he would be interested.  He had many women friends but his sexual and romantic interest was only in other men.  We learn a lot about gay literary life in Scotland, England, World War One in France, and later in Italy.  Moncrieff was friends with figures like E. F. Forester, Robert Graves, and loved Wilfred Owens.  Findlay tells us Moncrieff would sometimes take a short break from translating and write obscene homoerotic limericks.  Moncrieff took no shame in his sexual orientation though he was discrete when he needed to be.  He had a very active sex life with partners ranging from literary aristocrats to rent  boys in Roman back alleys.   I don't think Findlay meant to but her book is an important contribution to literary gay studies but it is. She does say one thing which kind of made me hesitate when she suggested that Moncrieff was a paradox in that he was a courageous leader in Trench Warfare in W W One, very fit but was also, in her words, "a Pansy".  Hopefully one day people won't see being gay and being courageous underfire in battle as something that needs to be reconciled.  I do not think Findlay means to use the term "pansy" in a perjorative way but to convey that Moncrieff was openly and happily gay.  Moncrieff was unashamed of his sexuality and took great pleasure in it. 

A lot of very interesting space is devoted to Moncrieff's experiences in the trenches in France in WWI.  He was a front line trench officer. Trench warfare was terribly vicious and conditions horrible.  He received medals for his bravery and his men greatly respected him. He basically survived the war because right before the events
like the battle of Somme began, he had a  leg broken twice by friendly fire.  He got out just before millions were killed.  He spent several months in a hospital back in England and was lucky not to lose his leg.  He did walk with a limp and suffer permanent pain the rest of his life.  We learn of the many famous W W One poets he met, a number of the most famous were also gay.  Even when he is back in London doing office war work, he constantly learns of more and more friends killed.

 C.K. Scott Moncrieff

"Good Grief Dear Boy
All my lovers
Murdered in the trenches
Dirty Huns gunning for beauty
Duty, a madness of

Moncrieff's family was comfortable but not really rich.  We learn a lot about his early years. Moncrieff worked for a while as assistant to the editor of The Times.  

Leaving out a lot, Proust's was coming into print and Moncrieff was contracted to translate it into English.  Sadly he and Proust never met though they did correspond a little about the translation.  There was concern over whether or not the English or American postal censors would allow it (I personally don't see many such persons as getting past the tenth page!) in the country but in the end there were no real problems.  Moncrieff 's translation is considered by many authorities the best literary translation ever.  There is annual prize for translation in his name. His prose is just beyond wonderful.  Findlay  talks  about the claim that Moncrieff's translation is "too flowery".  She dismisses this and convinced me with illustrations comparing his work to new translations.  Proust's narrator spends a lot of time theorizing and speculating  about gay and lesbian sex and this probably deeply impacted Moncrieff.  

Moncrieff got a job as passport officer attached to the British embassy in Rome after the war ended. His real function was to spy on the military build up of fascist Italy.  Moncrieff loved Rome, preferring the Italian food and more sexually open life style of Rome to England.  Moncrieff was very much an art lover.  Even in the war he studied old buildings.  Just like Proust, he loved Venice for the sheer beauty of the city.  He stayed briefly at a Tuscon villa owned by Ruffington Bousweau's grandmother.   Italy was seen as a freer kind of place by many English people from D. H. Lawrence to E. F. Forester and that is how Moncrieff experienced it.  Maybe back in Scotland he would have hesitated to have sex with rent boys in an alley for fear it might be talked about but  in Rome he did not care.  

Moncrieff was a very dedicated family person and helped many of his nephews and niece's with his considerable earnings from translations.  He also wrote a huge number of journalistic pieces, literary reviews and 1000s of letters.  

I did not know that Moncrieff also translated numerous works of Stendhal, including his major novels.  I have already downloaded two of his short Stendhal translations and will read them soon and probably all his Stendhal.  I have read The Red and The Black and The Charter House of Parma in new translations but eagerly look forward to reading Moncrieff's.  

He also translated some  of the works of the Italian Nobel Prize Winner Luigi Pirandello.  I have begun to read one of them already.

(Note- it looks to me like in some countries like Australia, Moncreiff's translations are now in the public domain but in the USA and UK they are under copyright until 2023.  You can download for free all his Proust and Stendhal works if you wish to do so.  I found one of his Pirandello works online.

Moncreiff was very much into the reading life.  As soon as I read he said Balzac's Lost Illusions was the greatest novel he ever read, I started it. He was constantly reading, even in the trenches.  When he learned he did not have long to live (he died  at 41 of stomach cancer) he at once began to read great works of literature he wanted to experience before he died, among them he selected War and Peace, The Golden Dove, and Moby Dick.  Moncrieff loved literature almost above all else.  I imagined his reaction when  Princesses  Geurmantes said the best thing in life is reading great literature.

There is much more in this book than I have mentioned.  The economics of book translation is very well conveyed, for example.

As I finished this book, I let out a silent scream of Joy for having learned so much about the man who brought me Proust.  

I salute and thank Jean Findlay  for this magnificent book.  

For sure I will reread this book, maybe after I reread his Proust and his Stendhal.  

The book is very well documented and there is an excellant bibliography. 

Author data (from Amazon)

JEAN FINDLAY was born in Edinburgh and studied Law and French at Edinburgh University, then theatre in Cracow with Tadeusz Kantor. She ran a theatre company, writing and producing plays in Berlin, Bonn, Dublin, Rotterdam, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She has written for the Scotsman, the Independent, Time Out and Performance magazine and lives in London with her husband and three children. She is the great-great-niece of C K Scott Moncrieff.

Mel u
The Reading Life





1 comment:

Unknown said...

Fascinating! Thanks for flagging this, Mel.