Academic journal article The Hudson Review

I Bite Rooks

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

I Bite Rooks

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP IN MID-CENTURY MIDDLE-CLASS TORONTO, in a house with a grand piano but no swimming pool in a neighborhood of engineers and doctors and sales managers (my father), the polished wooden shelves in the den were largely filled with middlebrow books, novels like Tortilla Flat and The Ugly American and The Good Earth, biographies (I remember Ernest Newman's life of Richard Wagner), and sets. My parents' shelves contained no Hemingway, no Fitzgerald, no Joyce, no classical literature, and no poetry. Perhaps A Child's Garden of Verses was there. The only highbrow work I can recall was a two-volume edition in quarter-cloth and bluish-grey boards of Scott Moncrieffs translation of Proust, an English version of A la recherche du temps perdu under the Shakespearean title Remembrance of Things Past that every North American antiquarian bookseller over fifty knows well and has seen a hundred times. So common was it at one period that I assume it must have been a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in the 1950s, when surely most copies went largely unread in households, like my parents', where Book-of-the-Month Club selections penetrated but literary books were a rarity.

The legend that Proust kills translators no doubt has its roots in the fact that the author himself died before his roman fleuve was completed and that the same fate attended its first translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, who died at forty in 1930, leaving the final volume of A la recherche, Le Temps retrouvé, to be englished by his friend Sydney Schiff, under the penname Stephen Hudson. Proust complained a little about his English translator, in particular about Scott Moncrieffs choice of title; but in truth he was blessed to have someone dedicated to bringing his immense and complicated book into English who had all the necessary linguistic skills as well as a similar, or rather parallel, social background, someone who, like Proust, aspired to mix with his social betters. Scott Moncrieffs own homosexuality also gave him a unique insight into Proust's world, even if he had to adjust Proust's text somewhat for the more puritanical British reading public, choosing, for example, to call the fourth volume of Proust's work Cities of the Plain when his publisher balked at the more blatant "Sodom and Gomorrah." Mildly bloodied but unbowed, he took to referring to that book as "Cissies [sic] of the Plain" in private conversation and correspondence.

We know this bit of persiflage because it is mentioned in Jean Findlay's recent life of Scott Moncrieff, to whom she is related.1 (He was her mother's great-uncle.) Findlay had access to a wonderful trove of family documents, letters, and diaries; the use of these, together with material in public repositories-especially an eleventh-hour discovery of Scott Moncrieffs long and intimate letters to Vyvyan Holland, now at the Humanities Research Center at Texas-has produced a richly detailed biography of a fascinating literary figure. Findlay has called her book Chasing Lost Time, and of course that is a direct translation of the tide of Proust's novel, the book which in a sense made Scott Moncrieff famous, or as famous as translators ever become. Findlay is able to gather testimony to suggest that not only is the Scott Moncrieff translation good, it is even, in the eyes of some (notably Joseph Conrad, who spoke French fluendy, but also John Middleton Murry), better than the original. This is a minority opinion, but it does testify to Scott Moncrieffs achievement of a flexible, at times profound, and always beautiful prose style that perfectly embodies Proust's French. If it is sometimes criticized as flowery or even euphuistic, and too obviously of its time, one might counter that those words apply equally to the original; and while the recent translation rendered by not one but seven different translators (Lydia Davis and others) has been touted as more accurate and easier to follow, readers faced with a choice will be choosing not necessarily between good and better versions but versions that aspire to different "Englishes. …

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