Jean Findlay, Founder and Head of Publishing at Scotland Street Press, author of Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator
Reviewed by David Garyan
C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time
C.K. Scott Moncrieff was a man of contradictions; like the land, Italy, he came to inhabit in the last years of life, it may perhaps be more precise to think of him not as the person who translated À la recherche du temps perdu into English, but as the embodiment of all the greatest virtues and likewise the lowest vices which the old country has embodied over its long history—and continues to exemplify. In many ways, it’s neither Marcel Proust—as many literary enthusiasts too often believe—nor his monumental work that came to define the soldier, translator, and spy, but rather the tense contradictions found in Italian life described here by Luigi Pirandello about his native Sicily.
Scott Moncrieff’s outlook on life largely resembled Giovanni Verga‘s; the two men’s lives were about—though Pirandello only writes about Vega in the previous paragraph—ambitiously going “where their certain fantastic sensuality” brought them, and because of this they tended to suffocate and betray “their true, hidden passion, with that ambition of an ephemeral life.” For the sake of brevity, we’ll avoid a discussion of the latter artist’s specificities, but the former, as Findlay writes, led a life full of opposing tensions: “A Catholic convert, he was also a family man, military man, a manly poet. A homosexual who flirted with women and had lasting emotional relationships with a number of close female friends.” Truly, this personality was closer to what Pirandello has described—the Italian soul—than what Proust embodied.
Those who live on the aforementioned island, which the great playwright and poet called home, have perhaps been given no choice but to learn the ways of successfully navigating the demands of life in the midst of totally opposing tensions—after all, it’s the descendants of exactly these people who once enjoyed the privilege of existing at the crossroads of civilization, but, at the same time, precisely because of this, they’ve also had to hold the curious distinction of perhaps being the most subjugated individuals in the world. “Palermo,” as the late American actor George C. Scott once joked, “is the most-conquered city in history. First the Phoenicians, the Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, then came the Arabs, the Spaniards and the Neapolitans. Now comes … the American Army!” The Chicago Tribune offers a likewise witty retort to the statement: “The Normans. Don’t forget the Normans. Or the Greeks, Vandals, Goths, Swabians, Aragonese, Savoyans, Austrians (in a trade for Sardinia and future considerations) and, finally, the Italians, through annexation via a referendum that was probably rigged.” It’s certainly been a complicated history and organized crime hasn’t helped free the place, by any stretch of the imagination, from a different type of colonialism altogether, but this is for another discussion.
What’s true is that those who reside on the island at once know the importance of displaying the highest honor and commitment in relationships, but they’re also equally comfortably in showing off those very same traits in revenge and hostility. Additionally, there’s the utter and total tendency to view foreigners and native strangers alike with the utmost suspicion and yet possess the comfort of being both extremely open and curious about others to an extent I have never seen—survival skills, I guess, passed down throughout the years from having to play good host to Romans and Arabs alike, people who, in all honesty, weren’t always such bad guests themselves, bringing innovation and culinary curiosities just the same. Who knew that arancini actually originated under Arab rule? And who knew, according to a UMass website, that the “orange was first introduced to Europe by the Arabs via Sicily?”
For good and bad, hence, the psyche of this nation has been shaped by what many would consider to be a negative phenomenon—domination—and for the most part, people have learned to make this a part of life; nevertheless, the ease and tact with which Italians are capable of navigating diametric opposition is also the reason why they can comfortably treat public resources and spaces in the most reckless, irresponsible way while having the capacity to maintain the greatest sanctity and cleanliness among family and in the home—streets and infrastructure littered with garbage while the floors at home are clean enough to eat from; such contradictions have not only been pointed out by Pirandello—a man Scott Moncrieff greatly admired and enjoyed translating—but also other Italian writers like Borgese as well.
It’s precisely this tendency to embody both the closed and open disposition—the mental effort to somehow synthesize diametrically opposed psychological forces so well described by both Pirandello and Borgese—that the great translator, solider, and spy himself embodied; and many times, as Jean Findlay, Scott Moncrieff’s great-great niece and biographer writes in her book, on more than two fronts: “Charles had a tough, discerning mind which disciplined his own life into several compartments: the literary man to Prentice, Marsh, and most of the world; the family man to his mother, brother, and relatives; the spy to Louis Christie and the Secret Intelligence Service, and the Rabelaisian homosexual to Vyvyan Holland alone. He was a man who one day could write a metaphysical religious poem of great depth, and on the next a filthy, funny limerick. He could, as Findlay describes, send a dirty limerick to Vyvyan Holland and in the very same letter he could thank precisely the same individual “for sending an Anthology of Catholic Poets.” The ability to reconcile such opposing forces and live with them is one of the trademarks of the Mediterranean sensibility, but they’re also the necessary ingredients for gregarious individuals, fond of hosting lavish parties, and, very naturally, spies—chiefly spies.
Even before Scott Moncrieff began translating the work that would really make both him and Proust famous in the Anglophone world, those reckless yet austere characteristics—especially typical of the Italian soul—and so well described by Pirondello and Borgese—were already very much a part of the future translator’s character, and the reader realizes this when he recklessly publishes “under his own name an ambitions story called Evensong and Morwe Song,” in which he had “painted a recognizable picture of a Winchester master.” Winchester is world-famous for being the most prestigious boarding school in the UK, having existed in its present location for more than six hundred years. The fact that the young artist’s work had so to say painted a recognizable picture shouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that, aside from dealing with homosexual themes, it likewise exposed the “snobbery” and “hypocrisy” in such institutions. Findlay writes the following about the incident: “Even one hundred years later, a school magazine would hesitate before publishing such a story,” and although she admits that the family, to this day, has no idea why his scholarship to Oxford was rejected, it seems sensible to believe that the aforementioned episode had a great deal to do with it, given that he excelled in his studies, and more tellingly, that admission did not just depend on a “competitive entrance examination,” but also on “the report from the headmaster at Winchester,” at that time a man by the name of J.M. Burge. Since the latter’s endorsement was at best lukewarm, it is plausible to assume that the failure in securing the prize didn’t stem from a lack of academic competitiveness but rather with the contents of the recommendation.
At the same time, it’s hard to believe that Scott Moncrieff would ever have dared to pull such antics in the presence of his family, given that he had an almost austere (in the best possible sense) dedication and love for them. Anxious as he was to see Proust published in English, he was nevertheless quite embarrassed about the prospect of his relatives reading the Sodom and Gomorrah part of the novel, going so far as to change the English title to Cities of the Plain. Findlay writes that he was “glad in a way that his father would not see it, yet knowing that there were other family members whom it would no doubt offend. He was well aware that the active and promiscuous homosexual world described by Proust was offensive to most people, so in translation he had tried to soften the blow by not being as direct as Proust could be in French, using euphemisms and hidden innuendos where he could.” Once again, we see how the contradictory elements of recklessness and piety could fully manifest themselves in the man. Later in his life, upon discovering that his pet owl had died because he had left him alone to peruse Florence on a visit to the “fleshpots and fiaschi,” by his own account, the remorse was far too great, according to Findlay: “He wrote a gloomy and confused letter to Prentice saying that he had inherited the family trait of ‘accepting diametrically opposite advice and feeling the full importance of things that don’t matter.'” The reader never really finds out what these unimportant things or specific advices are, but one gets the sense that we’re talking precisely about the contradicting temperaments so well described in Italian, particularly, Sicilian personalities.
Being a homosexual in a society which not only imprisoned one of its greatest writers—Oscar Wilde—in 1895, but also handed down two years of hard labor which, according to Findlay, greatly contributed to “breaking his health and confidence,” was certainly risky business. Indeed although “he had written one of his most poignant pieces, De Profundis, in prison and been inspired while there to compose the Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Findlay’s former statement certainly holds far greater weight, as the notable Irish author would go on to die only five years later, at the young age of forty-six, in 1900. In 1907, when the young Scott Moncrieff began visiting Robert Ross (Wilde’s lover and literary executor) at Half Moon Street, which was a “haunt of the literary homosexual coterie,” those tragic details would’ve been no stranger to the impressionable schoolboy. And yet, he, even at such a tender age, already had the capacity to discern the importance of appearances; it’s perhaps, then, his capacity in mastering the ability to maintain them—something which would serve him well as a spy in Italy—why he ultimately chose the country to begin with, or more correctly, why he was chosen for the role by Louis Christie.
For all intents and purposes, and for all the good and bad which comes with that, Italy is the quintessential country of appearances. Anyone who was born here or has lived in it for some time—again for better or worse—will know the importance of maintaining a “tidy surface,” even when what’s underneath is in total ruin; in addition, the ability to maintain a proper exterior is good even when the effort actually contributes to ruining the precious life underneath. Unlike the specific traits discussed before about Sicilians, the concept of bella figura captures the imagination of all Italians; literally translated as “beautiful figure,” the term does not simply encompass the ability to project attractive physical attributes; on the contrary, even Italians are sensible enough to understand that not everyone can have Aphrodite-like beauty—the term, hence, really encompasses the capacity to act with proper dignity, respect, and tact in any given situation. Everything must have the proper presentation and decorum—moderation being the lifeblood of Italians; at least that’s what they say or seem to believe.
Naturally, a person who drinks too much at a party and thereby ruins its decorum has violated the tenets of bella figura; however, a woman dressed to the nines—simply out to buy groceries—seems to be tolerated just fine in these parts and such behavior is even heartily encouraged, and not just by the men either. Is this truly moderation or have we, once again, returned to the wicked duality of Pirandello and Borgese? And what about the all-too-exaggeratedly elegant piazzas and duomos—well, again, moderation in this respect would be a grave sin for Italians. Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic seems—just as a momentary, humorous aside—to be challenged here, as the Catholics supposedly have less propensity for labor, suffering from some kind of Mediterranean or mañana-madness-inducing shortage of capital, and yet it’s the Protestant churches which are generally much less extravagant and grand.
Returning to our discussion of bella figura, that, apart from its seemingly positive attributes, also has rarely-spoken-about undertones which are, to say the least, actually quite dark—something I discovered not long ago; in a conversation with a friend, who jokingly said that Italy’s communitarian nature, along with people’s desire to protect the virtues and sanctities of their associations, may seem very positive, until you realize there may, perhaps, be no problem with the happiness a husband receives from cheating on his wife, so long as no one finds out about it and the harmony of the community isn’t ruined—again, the importance of appearances. It’s precisely this type of lifestyle, based largely on semblances, that the soldier, translator, and spy—not himself an adulterer, but whose “sin” of homosexuality was very well interpreted as being just as grave in his time—had to adopt, and do so quickly; in a sense, he had to become an Italian before he ever had the chance to translate Proust, and certainly before he was actually forced, in a sense, to relocate to the old country for the sake of his “health.” It’s perhaps, then, not a stretch to say that the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was not so much the translator of À la recherche du temps perdu (a work he not only translated very well, but interpreted in such a way that it ended up, to this day, best representing the novel in its time, despite the criticism he received for being too libertine in his interpretation) but rather the conduit for the highest virtues and likewise lowest depravities that Italians and their culture represented—not only then, but also now.
Even the German scholar of Proust, Ernst Curtius, is recorded as having written the following, included by Findlay in her biography: “I had imagined the translator of Proust to be an aesthete. He was something much better: an individual character … He was a Roman body and soul. It was not an antiquarian or artistic interest that drew him to Rome, but the everyday life of the city.” Despite Ernst’s totally captivating portrait of the soldier, translator, and spy, nowhere, however—at least in my analysis of the matter—is the case for Scott Moncrieff’s Italian soul more apparent than towards the end of the book, where Findlay writes: “Beneath the bravura was an exhausted man with far too much on his plate and no one to look after him. He [Scott Moncrieff] found in Pirandello’s chaotic world the irony he saw in his own life; that the appearance is rarely the reality and the layers of subterfuge people erect to present a face to family, friends, or the public is excellent material for drama.” Indeed, the Italian respect and affirmation for the arts—the need to uphold its reputation as being one of the progenitors, along with Greece, of Western culture—means, at once, that drama is not only highly appreciated but also actively encouraged by its citizenry, but only on stage, where the fourth wall prevents it from leaking out onto the incredibly ritualistic society held together by honor and decency, lest such a spectacle should ruin the meticulously constructed bella figuras of all those consuming the show in their chairs, naturally with all the proper etiquette; its bona fide, altogether genuine human display in public, however, is completely frowned upon, even if the person is on the verge of a breakdown—through all their fault in most cases or perhaps even none of their own.
In this sense, neither the biography nor perhaps even the living biographer can ever fully answer the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy if his medical condition didn’t “demand” his relocation there; from the book we’re given to understand that health concerns, along with his work as a journalist and translator, were merely a cover, mainly because Britain now once again needed capable spies on the ground in the old country: “There had been one hundred intelligence agents based in Italy during the war, but since 1918 numbers had hugely decreased because officially Italy was politically friendly on the surface. However, it was apparent the country now needed watching again,” and who better to watch it than a capable person like Scott Moncrieff, a man of duty, honor, clever resourcefulness (what many Italians often refer to as arrangiarsi).
Findlay confirms that “the job description could have been written for Charles, his sense of honour was still paramount. Recruiting Charles was an enormous help to Louis, who was needed to travel in countries across the Mediterranean—Greece and Turkey, also Egypt, Yemen, Aden, Muscat, Iraq, and Palestine.” In any case, aside from the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy out of his own volition or not, what’s undeniable is that he was an expert in the country’s customs and culture, and not just because of his Catholic conversion. Aside from the tenets of bella figura, the soldier, translator, and spy was also adept at what Italians refer to as the aforementioned arrangiarsi; literally it means to make do, but the real meaning is more akin to making something out of nothing—it’s the calculated ability to utilize the correct strategy in any given situation in order to make the right connections, to say the perfect thing, and to, literally, arrange all public and private matters in ways which are beneficial to you. An uneducated man living in Naples, for instance, where job prospects are already far and few even for those with university degrees, must necessarily be skilled in the art of arrangiarsi or effectively perish; good arrangiarsi exemplifies everything from washing car windows at red lights if you have absolutely nothing to ensuring your sons and daughters marry above their respective stations if you have only a little and are looking for more. As with bella figura, in the best sense, the aforementioned tenets imply a capacity for creativity and innovation; in the worst sense, however, they can also lead down the altogether undesirable roads of excessive cunning, deceit, and corruption.
In any case, Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, to this day, embodies the best sense of making something out of nothing, precisely because there was no model to work from and no one to help him. Aside from that, Proust wasn’t exactly the most organized individual (well, it’s difficult, anyways, to hold that against any writer), and Scott Moncrieff had to navigate various hurdles before he could even enjoy the comfort of what most publishers might call a perfectly typeset page, let alone our own privileges granted by Microsoft Word. As Findlay writes: “Proust’s novel was published in France before, during and after the First World War. There was a shortage of typesetters: many were dead and those who remained were overworked with under-trained assistants. The first volumes were printed with a lot of typesetter errors, far more than average because Proust was a complex writer and not all typesetters could follow the ideas or the sense of his sentences. Charles, however, did understand Proust. He also worked in a newspaper office and knew how typesetter errors occurred. In France the box of e’s and the box of a’s were adjacent to each other and to mistake le for la was a common error, but more so in Proustian compound sentences where the le or la is one of the many objects of the sentence, and could well be an idea. Much of the work in translating Proust was for Charles also a work of interpretation and instinct. He did not have access to the original manuscript (which was in longhand and extremely difficult to decipher anyways) and he still had a demanding day job.” If this doesn’t symbolize the best traits of arrangiarsi, I don’t know what does.
When his brother, John, accidentally shot himself cleaning a gun, the good translator took on more work (perhaps a greater amount than he could handle) to support his family; in this sense, too, he embodied the best of what honor and responsibility mean in countries like Italy, where family really is the centerpiece of every social activity. Having received, ironically, the tragic news immediately after securing a well-paying appointment, equaling “the purchasing power of over £100,000 a year,” Scott Moncrieff wrote the following to his brother’s widow: “by the greatest good fortune, I have now arrived at a decent position in the world and I swear to you that as a long as I live I will do all I possibly can to be a father to them [the children] and a helper to you. I think I knew more about him, knew him more intimately than anyone else but you—and I wish I could be with you to dry your tears, or mingle them with my own.” These are certainly not the words of archetypal hedonists concerned only with their own welfare and pleasure. As Findlay writes: “Charles contributed to the family income until his death. He was able to ensure that David, his nephew, was privately educated, and he visited the family in Oxford regularly.” Certainly we’re talking about a complex, contradictory figure, and this is meant in the best, almost exalted Mediterranean sense—having the capability to be flexible when life’s whims demand it, and yet, at the same time, marshalling a stoicism rigid as a rock when that very same life requires unbending dedication.
Indeed, one of the most touching and beautiful instances in the book where we witness those aforementioned traits is after the death of his father, when Scott Moncrieff begins to feel the full “call of family responsibility.” In the midst of deciding the future of Anna’s house in north Oxford, he oscillates so much between whose name it should be transferred under—his or hers—that Anna later remarked in a letter to Prentice the following: “Charlie changes his mind so much.” Indeed, the man is flexible to the whims of life’s demands, and, yet, at the same time, in the midst of this flexibility, he never wavers in the commitment to help the widow of his brother, simply because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the house is in her name or his—he will be in both cases completely committed to the task of helping her financially. Having myself lived in this strange land for two years, no other trait I can think of but this indecisiveness yet stoic commitment to people and also things can perhaps be considered more representative of the Italian soul—it’s why, once again, many parts of the country can comfortably present crumbling infrastructure to the public, and, yet, those very same citizen may sport floors clean enough to eat from in their own private homes; the proverbial traits that Borgese and Pirandello have described so well.
Possessing this Italian soul is precisely why Scott Moncrieff may have allowed himself to take liberties with the translation, much to the chagrin of Proust and his later critics, who often attacked him for destroying the façade of the original. And yet, what “purists” don’t seem to understand is that the effort of translation is less about the bare transmission of words and more about the communication of culture. This is something that Peter France, the noted scholar at Edinburgh, quoted by Findlay in her book, also confirms—that it’s “not merely a technical task to be carried out with proper efficiency (as done ideally—though not so far in reality—by a machine). The sort of translation to be discussed here has to do with the values, the personality, the intention that underlie the original. In relation to these, the translator’s duty is in part ethical (or even political).” It was Scott Moncrieff’s job, hence, to connect the void not just between the Protestant and Catholic attitude, but also between their two respective literary traditions, mainly because “Proust was stylistically and morally foreign to a protestant English audience, and bridging that gap was part of Charles’s role,” as Findlay so correctly emphasizes.
The translator, soldier, and spy we’ve come to know as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was, in this respect, certainly a man of his time, even if reading the biography often gives us the sense of exactly the opposite—an individual trapped by the oppressive circumstances of his surroundings. Indeed, those not in possession of the Italian soul, which allows for the navigation and, ultimately, reconciliation of life’s contradictions, may view his existence according to the parameters of the latter—a sort of Stephen Dedalus-like figure trapped in the grayness of his native Ireland, seeking to exile himself from both his location and generation, except this time we find ourselves in Scotland and the Catholic identity is embraced instead of rejected. Findlay, to some extent, confirms this view, writing: “He was leading a double life and thinking double thoughts. His letters home extolled the ideal family life, while in London he was drawn as by a magnet to the Ross establishment, the antithesis of family life. However, a change was happening in him, as the war changed everyone. The gulf between his professed beliefs and his actions was beginning to show: he felt the battle of good and ill, the confusion, within himself; he did not know where he stood, and was tired and sore.” Reading the passage, one would be tempted to go down the path of the Stephen Dedalus interpretation, but it would be an altogether wrong assessment for a man like Scott Moncrieff, mainly because, in fact, he did embody those previously-discussed Italian sensibilities—the soul—a fiery divergent character in the most passionate instances, and the cold, determined stoicism in the most testing moments; and further still, the ability to not only embody such oppositions but also possess the strength to synthesize the antithetical forces within the confines of one anima, perhaps in the purely dialectical Hegelian sense, but perhaps also very naturally in the “mixture of litanies and sperm,” exactly that sense of style proposed by Montesquieu, who believed, as Findlay writes, “that the sacred and the profane create an invigorating blend and thereby embrace the whole of life.” This idea, upheld by all means and methods, and for all intents and purposes, is drama not for the stage but precisely for the streets—it’s the drama in all its contradictory Italian sensibilities of the soul that Pirandello, like Scott Moncrieff, actually embodied in real life, according to Findlay: “The plays and stories hit a switch in Charles—Pirandello tackled appearance and reality with a twist. Human situations are rarely as they seem from the outside, there is often a secret story, sometimes a sombre, sexual one. Pirandello’s plays touched incest, adultery, prostitution, with a keen and compassionate eye, unveiling dark stories from the inside.” Indeed, having to live “much of his life under great threat,” and at the same time being “bound by honor and secrecy,” it’s completely understandable why the solider, translator, and spy would’ve “sympathized with Pirandello’s themes intimately: his plays dealt with necessary lies and secrecy.”
In many respects, it would be wiser, hence, to look more at the man as Goethe (had they been contemporaries) might have seen him, precisely at the time when he himself visited Italy—that very moment when his own soul came to understand a people’s solemn and stoic resignation to things that simply don’t work, along with their ability to adapt and live merrily with such reality. Noticing the utter pollution of a particularly beautiful street in Palermo that “in its length and beauty,” was one that “vies with any in the Corso in Rome,” he emphatically clamors: “By all the saints …. Is there no helping it?” The shopkeeper replies. “Things with us are as they are,” going on to explain that surely they could brush away the horse dung and dust, but what good would that do to their already-rickety brooms, which are barely functioning, composed of nothing except for “very little besoms of palm-branches, which, slightly altered, might have been really useful; but as it was, they broke off easily, and the stumps were lying by thousands in the streets.” Either way, in this respect, the beautiful street will be polluted by something. The great Goethe, realizing this, along with noticing the cheerful way in which his newly-made acquaintance has communicated his town’s dilemma, the quick-witted German pronounces that this was “consolatory proof to me that man has always humour enough to make merry with what he cannot help.” In this respect, too, Scott Moncrieff was a man who had the power to change many things, and, in fact, moved a great deal of stones he was capable of lifting, but his mountains stayed firm—as nature intended them to be—and for this, no human being can be blamed.
About Jean Findlay
Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University under Peter France and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the Independent, Time Out and the Guardian. In 2014 she published Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator with Chatto and Windus, now in Vintage paperback and with FSG in New York. She founded Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh in 2014 and now runs this small, award-winning publishing house. For writing The Hat Jewel she won a Hawthornden Fellowship 2018 and a Lavigny International Writer’s Fellowship 2019.