Why an Imperfect Version of Proust is a Classic in English

The art of translation is usually a semi-invisible one, and is generally thought better for being so. A few translators’ names are familiar to the amateur reader—we know about Chapman’s Homer, through Keats, and Richard Wilbur’s Molière is part of the modern American theatre—but mostly translators struggle with sentences for even less moment (and money) than other writers do. One key exception to this rule is C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1889-1930), whose early-twentieth-century English version of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” has been a classic in our own language since the day of its first publication. Newly published volume by newly published volume, working almost as a simultaneous translator, Moncrieff inserted Proust into the English-speaking reader’s consciousness with a force that Proust’s contemporaries in continental languages never really got. Mostly thanks to Moncrieff, Proust is part of the common reader’s experience in English. John Middleton Murry, in an early review, wrote, “No English reader will get more out of reading ‘Du cote de chez Swann’ in French than he will out of reading ‘Swann’s Way’ in English,” and amateur book readers, for whom other works of mega-modernism—“The Man Without Qualities,” or “Buddenbrooks”—remain schoolwork, still read Proust. Everybody tries to climb Mt. Proust, though many a stiff body is found on the lower slopes, with the other readers stepping over it gingerly.

But the ease of Moncrieff’s translations also started a fistfight, ongoing, about whether his Proust is Proust, near Proust, Anglicized Proust, or not Proust at all. That Moncrieff called Proust’s book “Remembrance of Things Past,” borrowing from Shakespeare, rather than anything close to a literal rendering of the title “In Search of Lost Time,” is typical of what the translation’s detractors kvetch about to this day. The first full-length biography of Moncrieff is now out, written by Jean Findlay and bearing the cumbersome title “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator.” And though it occasionally makes one wish that the old form of the brief life would come back into fashion (Moncrieff was an interesting man who led an exceptional life, but he was not that interesting nor that exceptional) the book still helps us see how someone who was not even particularly expert in the original language managed to make a great French book into a great English one.

Moncrieff, who was Uranian, as the self-designation was then, emerged from the élite boarding school Winchester College and Edinburgh University into that strange half-lit, prewar world of London homosexuality after the Wilde trial. It’s frequently said, in popular literature, that after Wilde’s imprisonment the gay literary establishment fled or was frightened into silence, but judging from the evidence assembled here, and in other memoirs of the period, that isn’t quite so. The Wilde circle persisted, more or less openly Uranian, though less expansively self-confident, and came to produce respectable figures such as Moncrieff’s intimate friend Edward Marsh, who was Winston Churchill’s private secretary, and who was hardly “out,” but was, in his serial infatuations, not exactly in, either. These men were inside the closet, certainly, but it was a bigger and better panelled one than many before or since—and a closet that big and that well panelled is really more like a private club.

It is good to be reminded, too, that the mood and spirit of the circle was not remotely radical but rather cautiously reactionary and happily militaristic: the alternative to Uranian love was not socialism but Catholicism, of the kind to which Wilde himself succumbed in the end. (The link lies in aestheticism: if you live for lovely, the Catholic rite has all others beat.) Edward Marsh, Compton Mackenzie, Reggie Turner, and Noël Coward—the politburo of what W. H. Auden called the Homintern—attended Moncrieff’s farewell lunch when he left for Italy, in the nineteen-twenties. The group’s secure social position did not guarantee an absence of persecution, but it tended to keep the persecution from becoming regularly renewed. The rules of the game were as complex, to an outsider, as the rules of cricket—but they knew how to play that game, too. (On the other hand, Moncrieff fled to Italy in part because he wanted sex without the police.)

At one moment, Moncrieff writes to Marsh to ask if he could “stop them [i.e., the government] from prosecuting me if I translate Sodom et Gommorhe,” the most overtly “gay” volume in Proust’s book. Then, two sentences later, he writes, “I am seriously delighted that Winston has returned to power and hope to see him prime minister.”

The picture of the times that Moncrieff’s life provides is interesting, but what matters most is the book he made from the book he found. He began translating Proust in 1919, after returning with a serious leg wound from what was called “gallant service” in the war. In a spirit very nearly casual, he interspersed his translations of the later volumes with a great deal of other work. What made his Proust translation so superior—so much so that Joseph Conrad could actually say that he thought Moncrieff was a better translator than Proust was a writer?

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