C.K. Scott Moncrieff, poet, spy & Proust’s translator : interview with Jean Findlay
One hundred years ago Scottish poet Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff (1889−1930) discovered Marcel Proust’s works. Thanks to his translation (the second in a foreign language after the Spanish one, from 1920 to 1930) of À la recherche du temps perdu, literally millions of English speaking people have read this masterpiece. In 2014 Scott Moncrieff’s grand grand-niece released a great biography of this fascinating character called Chasing Lost Time — The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff : Soldier, Spy and Translator (Vintage).
N.R. : What did the general public know of CKSM’s life before you wrote your book ?
J.F.: Charles was in footnotes or paragraphs in the biographies of the great literary figures of the day : Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Noel Coward, the Sitwells etc. Now these form a patchwork of sections and footnotes in his biography. There was a page or so in the Dictionary of National Biography about his translations, but almost nothing was known of his personal life.
N.R. : Years ago you were given a suitcase full of letters and various documents from your ancestor. Did this crucial moment trigger your desire to write your biography ?
J.F.: I did know that he was considered a great literary figure, but no biography existed, and a publisher/translator friend said there ought to be one, so when this suitcase was unearthed in my great aunt’s attic, it was like releasing his personality from captivity. He was so immediate and alive through the letters. My agent approached Chatto and Windus first, as they were the first publishers for Proust, and I was given a commission.
N.R. : There are so many details in your biography. How long did your research and writing take ?
J.F.: It took eight years altogether, and involved scrutiny of the letters in the suitcase, cross-referencing with the biographies of the literary figures, visiting the battlefields of the First World War, discovering many other letters in the Berg Collection in New York Public Library, Boston and Texas and then, about six years into the job, finding a file at the National Archives in Kew which revealed that he was also a spy for the British in Italy in the 1920s.
N.R. : There are clearly two faces of CKSM. The first is the poet, the translator, the good son, the war hero. The second is the spy, the homosexual. This second face is that of secrecy, codes and euphemism. And sometimes those two sides interact : for instance the title CKSM chose for Sodome et Gomorrhe in English, Cities of the Plain, reveals both the fear of being suited because of censorship and even unmasked as a homosexual. What does this say about the UK’s attitudes towards homosexuality in those times ?
J.F.: Homosexuality was illegal, punishable by imprisonment. Those fearful of the fate which befel Oscar Wilde, either chose exile or suicide. The Obscenity Laws made it impossible to publish works refering to homosexuality or any explicit sexual activity. This is why D.H. Lawrence published his works in Italy. It would not have been possible to publish ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ as a title in Britain, and those who read Proust would be cultured enough to know what the ‘Cities on the Plain’ referred to in the Old Testament were called. (Noel Coward produced a play where the stage direction was for the actress to be reading a book called Sodom and Gomorrah, as his own humorous reference to CK’s dilemma). In the end it was Boni in the US who took the plunge and published the volume before it came out in the UK. It is also worth noting that a life of hiding his nature made Charles a natural at subterfuge and a good spy.
N.R. : CKSM was exposed to the French language at a very early age, during the first four years of his life when he had a Belgian nanny. So do you think French was in him from the beginning, like a sleeper agent waiting to awaken ?
J.F.: Yes, that is a very good analogy, particularly the agent (as he became an agent later on). He was also schooled early in Latin and Greek, not so far from French, and spent many hours translating these into his own poetic prose.
N.R. : How many languages did he speak at the end of his life, except of course for Scots, English, French, Latin and ancient Greek ?
J.F.: He added Italian to these as he lived in Italy for the last eight years of his life. He translated two novels and two plays by Pirandello, whom he knew. Charles also tried hard to propagate Pirandello to the English speaking world, encouraging both British and American publishers to take him on. He was vindicated when Pirandello won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
N.R. : He was using his languages as codes for his explicit correspondence, right ?
J.F.: .Vyvyan Holland was the son of Oscar Wilde and a close friend of Charles, also a translator and linguist. They corresponded throughout their lives and Charles entertained him with his bawdy adventures. The entire correspondence is in the HRC in Houston Texas and I did not discover it until I had finished writing the biography, so Charles’ intimate life had to be filleted into the book at the last minute.
N.R. : It seems that being at war in France helps his understanding of French language and French culture and gave him a taste for them, even though he had studied French at university with George Saintsbury. Before the war, French literature is absent from his readings.
J.F.: George Saintsbury was a great Francophile. He wrote ‘A History of French Literature’ and was considered an authority on the subject. He was a great influence and would have inspired Charles with his passion for French literature. But you are right, Charles doesn’t seem to be reading it before he goes to France and hears the language all around him. Then at war in Belgium, after watching the destruction of Ypres, he buys two leatherbound volumes of Maupassant’s tales and discovers him. (I still have these volumes – picture) Later he compares Pirandello to Maupassant when he is trying to persuade English Publishers to take him.
N.R. : Let’s come to Proust now. There is this incredible moment at the beginning of your book when you recount Scott Moncrieff’s holidays in Normandy around Cabourg and Trouville. This very same summer of 1896, Proust was there with his grandmother at Cabourg. How cruel to learn that MP and CKSM were so close in space, but never actually met !
JF : Charles would have been 6 years old and Marcel 24, so I am not sure the meeting would have been recorded in literary annals ! However this early trip to France would have left a heavy imprint in his memory and struck a chord with Charles when he came to discover Proust with his wonderful descriptions and action set that part of Normandy.
N.R. : There is a kind of strange symmetry between CSKM’s life and MP’s life. We are not sure of this, but Philip Kolb thinks that MP maybe read Ruskin for the first time in the mid-1890s… at the very same time CKSM’s mother read him Ruskin aloud. CSKM’s parents were friends with Stevenson ; MP was an avid Stevenson reader. Both MP and CSKM loved publishing in reviews with friend ; both lost the man they loved tragically ; Proust translated Ruskin, CSKM translated Proust ; Proust met Oscar Wilde (briefly); CSKM was a friend of Wilde’s son, etc. Have you noticed this while writing your biography ?
J.F.: This is an interesting symmetry and you have just pointed it out to me. At that time the literary world was a very small place and it is not surprising that their reading of the great minds of the time coincided. As with the trip to Normandy, Charles’ early exposure to Ruskin ensured his enthusiasm for translating Proust’s work. Both being closet homosexuals (Proust liked to call them Sodomites) gave a sympathy for and love of Oscar Wilde and an understanding of the hidden world full of euphemism and codes that homosexuals inhabited at that time.
N.R. : Tell us about CSKM’s translating process. He had some very personal techniques. Can you detail the steps between the first read and the published texts ?
J.F.: Charles would read first avidly out of sheer enjoyment, then secondly with a notebook and a friend out loud. He would try out the sentence in English for sound and test it on his friend – these were usually cultivated women friends who had an interest in him and Proust. Then when it sounded right metrically and made sense, he would jot it down in his notebook. The first test was always an aural one. That is how he explained errors in a letter to a friend, ‘when I come to the most frightful howler, like the German musician on whose score a fly alighted, I ‘play him’’. Because of course many texts of Proust were full of typesetting errors as he was sometimes working from uncorrected proofs. So it was often a work of interpretation.
N.R. : CSKM’s choices for volume titles and La Recherche were controversial. I think people forgot that he couldn’t see the whole picture at the time, at least at the very beginning. While fighting in Ypres he found a piece of stained glass from a bombed church. At the beginning of his MP translation, he knew only this piece of glass of the Proustian cathedral. As a reader of both English and French, what is your appreciation of CKSM’s titles and moreover your appreciation of his translation ?
J.F.: This is again a nice analogy and it reminds me of Charles’ article in the TLS to highlight the ‘Nouvelle Revue Française’ tribute to Proust on his death, where they quoted small pieces from his unpublished work and Charles wrote with all the excitement of the discovery of new literature, seeing the volumes ahead as a “kaleidoscope of ever shifting pieces of glass.”
They say that a translation can be either ‘belle ou fidele’ but not both, and Charles always chose the latter. I think that this is the success of the translation. Each title had to entice an English speaking audience as its first priority, and that audience would be a literary one, so a line from Shakespeare’s sonnet no 30 would be known as such ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past’. Charles’s translation was a work of art in itself, bearing in mind the audience of his day and how to sell to that audience. He was also a successful critic and literary figure and knew as Noel Coward advised ‘never bore your audience to death’. A faithful and clunking translation would alienate the readership. Charles saw himself as an interpreter of a great work, like Tortellier playing Bach, or Gielgud playing Shakespeare. All the titles are taken from poems, ‘Swan’s Way’ is from Beowulf, ‘Sweet Cheat Gone’ is from Walter de la Mare’s ‘Ghost’ and Charles went personally to de la Mare to ask if he could use the line from his poem. ‘Within a budding grove’ is from a poem by Allingham and so on.
N.R. : CKSM was eighteen years younger than MP. But at the end of his life, it seems like CKSM reached finally Proust — at least in time. We do not know whether he read Le Temps retrouvé. If not it’s very sad because he missed the end of the story, and especially this sentence : Le devoir et la tâche d’un écrivain sont ceux d’un traducteur (“The duty and task of a writer are those of a translator”). How do you think he would have reacted to this ?
J.F.: Charles was 40 when he died ; he was given an even shorter life than Proust. But he worked at terrific speed completing over 22 volumes of literary translation, writing thousands of letters and contributing hundreds of articles of literary criticism. On top of that he was a wounded soldier and a spy. I think he would have understood the sentence you quote especially at the end of his life. All communication is an act of translation, from one way of understanding to another. If it is done elegantly, with beauty, precision and inspiration then it is worth preserving.
N.R. : You worked with Tadeusz Kantor. Can you tell what that was like and whether he was a Proust reader ?
J.F.: Which brings me to Kantor. When the great director was not pleased with an action on stage or a piece of the set, he would state angrily, ‘To nie jest eleganckie.’ I can picture him violently ripping off a door handle that he did not like with the explanation that it was not elegant. He was concerned with detail, and how the details fitted together. Sometimes the whole picture was less important. In that way he was similar to Proust. I did not speak Polish to begin with and Kantor could speak fluent French, so we conversed in French for the duration of the year’s scholarship. ( It was 1987–88, while the country was still under martial law). However I do not know if he was familiar with Proust, I had not read Proust at that point myself.