Magazine article The American Conservative

Proust's English Voice

Magazine article The American Conservative

Proust's English Voice

Article excerpt

Proust's English Voice Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator, Jean Findlay, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages

There have been a number of biographies recently on minor or forgotten figures of literary modernism. Sarah Barnsley's life of American modernist Mary Barnard and James Dempsey's account of Dial editor and publisher Scofield Thayer are but two examples. Now we have Jean Findlay's biography of her greatgreat uncle, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the first English translator of Marcel Proust. Findlay's biography is a reminder not only of how small and interconnected the world of letters was before World War II but also of the important part editors and critics played in modernism's early successes.

Scott Moncrieff is also a fascinating character in his own right. He was a Scottish Catholic, homosexual, friend of G.K. Chesterton and columnist for Chesterton's The New Witness, war hero, and spy in Mussolini's Italy. He was close to polymath Edward Marsh-Churchill's private secretary-Wilfred Owen, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and many other notable figures.

Findlay starts with a long and mostly unnecessary history of the Scott Moncrieffs and an overly detailed account, stuffed with juvenilia, of C.K.'s early years. The essentials are that he was born on September 25, 1899, to a conservative Presbyterian judge and a literary mother. He was an obedient son, and he worked hard in school, hoping to go to Oxford like his older brother, but he failed the entrance exams-twice. So instead he studied law and English, the latter under George Saintsbury, at the University of Edinburgh, where he eventually won the prestigious Patterson Bursary for Anglo-Saxon translation-an early indication of his gift for languages.

While at Edinburgh, he would occasionally take the train to London to spend time with Robert Ross, a friend of Oscar Wilde's and executor of his estate. How Scott Moncrieff met Ross is unclear but Findlay writes that "it certainly happened when Charles was sixteen." It was through Ross that Scott Moncrieff came into contact with London literary figures and met Wilde's son, Vyvyan, who became a lifelong friend.

Scott Moncrieff earned his law degree in 1912 and his degree in English literature in 1914. Throughout his studies, he was active member of the army cadet force, leading a group on a Canadian tour in the summer of 1912. In March 1913 he was appointed second lieutenant in the General Reserve. When England declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Scott Moncrieff received orders to join the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) at Dumfries and was sent to join the Third Reserve Battalion at Portland. He was given command of a battery of 9.2-inch guns and 90 men.

Once we get to the war, the superfluous details in Findlay's account fade, and the biography picks up pace as she focuses on Scott Moncrieffs surprising accomplishments and attitudes. The picture that emerges of him during the war is of a man who enjoyed the camaraderie of military life and was a gifted and courageous leader. At the time, British officers were drawn almost entirely from the upper classes. Some of them were unflappable under fire. Others weren't. According to Findlay and the testimony of the men who served under him, Scott Moncrieff was recklessly brave.

He would spy out German positions himself and would occasionally lead his men into battle even though officers were supposed to remain behind (to shoot deserters). One of his men remembered him in these terms: "I can see him strolling about No Mans Land as cool as if he were on the parade ground, seeking information and the position of the enemy .... On one occasion he brought back, as a souvenir, a German sandbag." Over the course of the war, he won a Military Cross, the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, and other awards for service.

Before the war, many young men across Europe had looked forward to fighting. …

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