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The subtitle of this entertaining biography describes CK Scott Moncrieff as a “Soldier, Spy and Translator”. But Jean Findlay, his great-great-niece, makes clear in Chasing Lost Time that the list of his accomplishments and activities did not end there. Scott Moncrieff was also a generous family man, a promiscuous homosexual and a converted Catholic. His colourful, 40-year life somehow seems to embody almost every literary cliché of his time, from poet of the trenches to jazz age expat. And yet his name never appeared on the front cover of any of the 20-odd books he published.

Born in 1889, Scott Moncrieff took part in the first world war and, like many sensitive young officers of his generation, he wrote poetry; unlike Siegfried Sassoon (whom he disliked) or Wilfred Owen (with whom he was in love), however, Scott Moncrieff’s poems were not bleak portrayals of futility and horror but rather jaunty little rhymes. In “Billeted” (published in 1917), for example, he wrote:

Mustn’t think we don’t mind when a chap gets laid out,
They’ve taken the best of us, never a doubt;
But with life pretty busy, and death rather near
We’ve no time for regret any more than for fear . . . 

Testimonies from the men who served under him suggest an almost recklessly brave captain, “strolling about no-man’s-land as cool as if he were on the parade ground”. Eventually, though, his luck ran out, and he was wounded in the leg by friendly fire, just avoiding amputation and leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life.

He was given a job in the War Office, and continued to write poetry, though he did have the good sense and humility to recognise that it was not of a particularly high quality. Even at this young age, he was able to see and acknowledge genius in others, a quality that would lead to the translation work for which he is remembered.

He championed Wilfred Owen before he was widely known and tried – and, fatally, failed – to secure him a home posting that would have saved him from a return to the front. There were dark suggestions at the time (by Robert Graves, among others) that Scott Moncrieff’s failure in this regard was a reaction to being sexually rebuffed by Owen but Findlay convincingly dismisses the likelihood of this.

The remainder of his life took place mostly in Italy, a very 1920s mix of punishingly hard work, an absurdly funny social life, and quite a lot of casual sex, before ill health finally wrestled him into the grave. At points in his life, Scott Moncrieff seems, by modern standards, to have been almost tragicomically stoical, responding with the stiff upper lip to symptoms of trench fever (which he always considered merely “a bad cold”) and stomach cancer (which he confused with indigestion, despite bouts of rectal bleeding and intense pain). I kept thinking of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), dancing around with his arms cut off, declaring breezily: “Just a flesh wound!”

Surprisingly, Scott Moncrieff’s work as a British spy proves far less interesting than his work as a translator, consisting mostly in hanging around at train stations, counting troop movements. He was very much part of literary life in the 1920s, however, sniping at DH Lawrence, corresponding with TS Eliot, and enjoying a long-running feud with the Sitwells. Literature was, along with his family, the main love of his life, and his translations of Beowulf and Chanson de Roland allowed Scott Moncrieff to discover his true vocation.

His translation of Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, daringly retitled as Remembrance of Things Past and published in 1922, is an enduringly controversial classic. Scott Moncrieff’s critics claim he took too many liberties, and that his prose is too “dressy”. But Proust himself, after initially being alarmed by the title change, confessed his admiration for the translation, and many other writers, notably Joseph Conrad, considered it superior to the original.

What marked Scott Moncrieff as the pre-eminent translator of his generation was his boldness. (Indeed, so bold was he that, soon after telling his publisher, “I shall never speak the language”, he was translating Pirandello from the Italian.) The easiest and most cowardly way of translating a work of fiction is to be literally “faithful” to each sentence, shadowing the punctuation and phrasing of the original as if it were merely a code to be cracked. Scott Moncrieff’s genius lay in his ability to be faithful to something greater and less tangible: the spirit of the story and its telling.

Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff – Soldier, Spy and Translator, by Jean Findlay, Chatto & Windus, RRP£25, 368 pages

Sam Taylor is a novelist and translator. His most recent translations are ‘Ukraine Diaries’ by Andrey Kurkov and ‘The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe’ by Romain Puertolas

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