Those who venture upon the heights of Mount Proust are well aware that his fame in the English-speaking world owes much to a Scots translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff. Proust’s masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, certainly among the half-dozen literary classics of the 20th century, with its syntactic challenges, ruminations, and comic storytelling, would be far less familiar without Moncrieff’s prodigious labors. But who, exactly, was C. K. Scott Moncrieff?
Until now, the author of the classic English translation of Proust’s seven volumes in French has been a shadowy mystery man. And no wonder, given that Charles K. Scott Moncrieff maintained at least half-a-dozen identities, one of which—his sexual orientation—was known only to close friends. Now, this mysterious figure steps from the shadows in a diligently researched biography by his great-great-niece, Jean Findlay. She has discovered a more adventurous ancestor than could well have been invented—even, perhaps, by Marcel Proust himself: Scots nationalist, Winchester scholar and failed Oxford applicant, Edinburgh-trained lawyer, Great War officer and decorated hero, Roman Catholic convert, cruising homosexual, literary scholar and critic, man of the world with a circle of loyal and admiring friends—and, toward the end of his brief life, British spy in Mussolini’s Italy.
All these identities notwithstanding, Scott Moncrieff primarily justifies biographical attention as the eloquent author of what is widely regarded as the greatest of 20th-century translations and one of the best in the history of translation: a work fit to stand with the King James Bible and Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch, which nourished Shakespeare.
An enduring issue lies at the heart of Chasing Lost Time: How free or literal should the ideal translator be, how idiomatic in the language into which he renders a masterwork? One classic discussion of this perennial question is not to be found in Findlay’s diligent study: It is a debate about the translation of Alexander Pushkin. A half-century ago, Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov conducted an acrid debate on the English versions of Pushkin’s seminal work, Eugene Onegin. Nabokov, whose native language was Russian and whose adoptive mastery of English rivals Joseph Conrad’s, wrote a lumpy and literal translation. Wilson, self-taught in Russian, translated freely, in smooth, idiomatic English. The argument became more than a bit vitriolic when Nabokov pronounced that any less-than-literal translation is inherently false—borderline trash, in his view.
Their argument is well worth reviewing, for Scott Moncrieff’s version of Proust raises identical issues concerning the art of translation. And, but for his English rendition of Proust’s seven fat volumes, his name would remain obscure. Not merely did Scott Moncrieff write (or create?) an eloquent book in English—“a masterpiece,” in the judgment of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with which Conrad himself agreed, finding it better reading than the French original. He also translated freely, taking huge liberties with the phrasing and, more than occasionally, substituting English equivalents not to be found in Larousse.
To Proust’s displeasure, Scott Moncrieff decorated his work with romantic titular lines from English poetry. From Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, he drew the overall title, Remembrance of Things Past, which is distant in English idiom from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, whose sense is “The Search (or Quest) for Lost Time.” As Proust pointed out in a mild rejoinder—he was on his deathbed in 1922 when the translation of the first volume, Swann’s Way, appeared—the quest for a vanished or forgotten past evokes his principal theme and the hero’s moments of pleasurable recall, the most familiar of which is stimulated by scallop-shaped cake suffused in lime tea that evokes memories of his cherished Aunt Leonie.
Proust was slow to react: “a reticent devil,” the translator scoffed, after several attempts to get his attention. Swann’s Way, as Scott Moncrieff called the first volume (after swansweg from Beowulf) was again distant from the French Du côté de chez Swann—a direction in which the young Proust and his family walked, not a manner. Another problem was what to call the volume that Proust had entitled Sodome et Gomorrhe, with explicit allusion to the activity sometimes rudely named for the first of those biblical place names. Scott Moncrieff and his publishers, both English and American, wished to avoid the attentions of censors, and so the inexplicit title Cities of the Plain was adopted.