Best known for bringing Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time) into English for the first time.
Ant by C.K. Scott Moncrieff
An anthology of Moncrieff’s work, compiled and edited by Jean Findlay (the author’s great-great niece) written in his youth, during the war, and afterwards.
It has become an indisputable maxim, at least in the Western literary tradition, to separate the author from the work he or she has written. Unlike Chinese culture, which views the writer as inextricably linked to the literature he has produced, our own academies treat the text as the sole “living” entity—in that sense, the single credible source from which readers should derive literary meaning. “The author is dead,” remarked the French literary critic, Roland Barthes, a man only born into this world when C.K. Scott Moncrieff was already twenty-six years old, and had, by that time, seen action in France as a commissioned officer. Moncrieff, however, though severely injured, died neither as a person nor as an author, and along with the work he managed to publish during his military service, he later went on to have a flourishing literary career as a translator of French and Italian literature, along with establishing himself as a trusted critic.
The poems and short stories, collected and edited in Ant by Jean Findlay (the great-great niece of Moncrieff) are a testament, firstly, not just to the author’s vitality, life, and perseverance, but secondly, and more importantly, the assembled literature also proves a more general point: It’s futile and perhaps also impossible to separate the author from his own creation. C.K. Scott Moncrieff was a man both of his time and likewise a man out of time, an individual of paradoxes and contradictions—a devout Catholic and unrepentant homosexual, a steadfast war hero and also the most tender love poet, an open individual unafraid to show emotion but also a spy who both preferred and also had to keep many secrets to himself. Suffice it to say, there was no one else better equipped to write the philosophical insights, vivid descriptions of humanity, and observations about the natural world we find in Ant than C.K. Scott Moncrieff.
While the majority of the work collected here has been published in various prestigious literary magazines of Moncrieff’s time, including T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, it’s ultimately the job of the editor to assemble them in such a way that does justice to Moncrieff’s artistic vision, and this is something Jean Findlay has certainly done. It’s a great relief to know that the collection isn’t organized chronologically, but rather thematically. We enter the author’s literary world through his short stories, and the first one, in this respect, is “Evensonge and Morwesong,” a piece Moncrieff wrote while studying at Winchester, the most prestigious boarding school in the UK. In this work, he decries the hypocrisy of the master, deals with homosexual themes, and exposes the snobbery of such institutions. Moncrieff writes: “As he was transcribing the address this most consummate of headmasters received an unpleasant shock … a picture of two boys in a thicket; of the one’s charming nonchalance; of terror sickening the other, a child that had just lost its soul.” Here, Carruthers, the school master, has punished two boys for essentially the same act he himself committed; he’s reminded of this by a photo he’d long forgotten, and we find out that one of the pupils being punished is, in fact, the son of the boy he himself seduced.
As we reach the end, Jean Findlay reminds us that Moncrieff published this story in 1908, and the fact that the book opens with one of the first things Moncrieff ever wrote is only a coincidence. It’s a larger testament to the courage and openness that would make the author in question not only an excellent solider, but also a sharp, observant translator and critic. The story, in a sense, both defines the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff, as it reveals to readers his uncompromising, brave search for truth, and yet it also doesn’t define him, precisely because his failure to get into Oxford as a result of the story’s publication doesn’t go on to stop him from becoming one of the foremost literary figures of not only his generation, but also ours.
We subsequently jump fourteen years in time to the story “Mortmain,” published by G.K. Chesterton’s The New Witness in 1922. The main character, a soldier named Farleigh Bennett, has been seriously wounded and is preparing to undergo surgery. The injuries are so bad “as to make amputation the one possible remedy,” and it’s further unfortunate that he “had not been wounded in any glorious encounter; a bomb badly thrown by a man of his own Company had fallen back at his feet from the parapet and, while he groped for it in the dark trench, had exploded actually under his right hand.” This work is a prime example of how the author is so intimately connected to his work. Moncrieff himself, according to Jean Findlay’s biography, Chasing Lost Time, was wounded by a “British shell aimed at the German trench [which] fell short and exploded in front of him.” The brave officer was nominated for a medal, but as Findlay writes: “Charles initially refused the award because he was injured by his own barrage, and because he did not think himself more deserving than anyone else.” We hence see—and this very clearly—how the author’s life and experiences are at once present in “Mortmain.” While Moncrieff, unlike his character Bennett, never lost his own limb, his own injuries were nevertheless permanently disfiguring, and it’s not difficult to imagine how he, similarly to Bennett, may have perceived his own leg to be a separate, independent entity from the rest of his body, unable to find coordination with the whole. Thus, the story’s supernatural element of the limb having its own life serves as a parallel for the author’s private struggle to “start” a new life after the war, while simultaneously having to bear the burden of the old one as well.
After “Mortmain,” we jump four more years ahead in time to “Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie.” Published in 1926 by T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, this story is perhaps the most touching, yet bittersweet in the entire collection. Crafted with Proustian-like memories of childhood that influence the future, we follow Alec, who spends many of his days with Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie, mainly because his parents travel to India. Recollections of Cousin Annie’s generosity towards him, and Cousin Fanny’s mother dying on the Queen’s birthday, along with memories of his own birthday, serve to emphasize the borders between life and death.
Alec grows up and joins the war effort, and except for one visit during this period, he gradually loses touch with both Fanny and Annie. Memories, however, of the generosity they had shown before his leave for school—how Cousin Fanny had given him “a pound, which he didn’t quite like to take if she was so poor, except that he needed it, really, more than she did,” and how Annie had given him “a huge cake which she had baked for him”—trigger a desire to visit them once more. When he does, however, it’s already too late, as Annie has died, and this leaves Alec feeling incredibly upset: “Every single day since her childhood Annie had had to prepare all her own meals, and, until extreme old age, other people’s as well. He thought of all the services that had been rendered him every day of his life, at school and in the army, and how easily he had taken it. What had he ever given Annie? Kisses, when he was little; and a china dog—and she had spent every moment when she was not in her kitchen by his bedside when he was ill. Why this was the bed he had been ill in.” When he meets Fanny and tells her that Annie has passed away, he’s surprised at her heartlessness: “Well, we must all die some time, I suppose.” The story is fascinating because while it does closely resemble the sentiments and nature which formed the author’s own character, the resemblance is exactly the opposite. In other words, the author, during his own life, was completely devoted to taking care of his family, relatives, and friends.
In her biography, Findlay recalls a time when Moncrieff’s brother, John, accidentally killed himself while cleaning a gun; upon receiving the news, the grief-stricken man promised to do everything in his power to support his family, and he wrote the following to his brother’s widow, Anna: “I swear to you that as long as I live I will do all I possibly can to be a father to them [the children] and a helper to you.” Indeed, we would never expect these words or actions to emanate from a character like Alec, who, in the author’s words, accepts services of support easily and without second thought, but it’s precisely this reversal which shows us the traits that Moncrieff himself admired—honor, commitment, and sacrifice for the family.
From the section “Short Stories,” the collection moves to “War Serials,” and while war does also feature in works like the aforementioned “Mortmain” and “Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie,” the pieces in this section are assembled in a way that brings forth the potent descriptive powers Moncrieff had as a writer. We begin with “Halloween,” which is, as Findlay writes in the anthology’s introduction, “a weekly story for the New Witness,” that Moncrieff wrote “while in the trenches and on sick leave with trench foot in 1916.” The story revolves around the main character, Allison, a soldier moving with his Company through Belgium towards the city of Ypres, in preparation for battle there.
The scene is both tranquil and chaotic, which mirrored Moncrieff’s own experiences in war. He was known to raise the spirits of soldiers by reading literature to them, but was at the same time calm under fire, always demonstrating the highest level of courage in dangerous situations. As he once wrote to his mother in an October 27th, 1914, letter: “There is something rather stimulating in being under fire.” As the war dragged on, however, this “stimulation” naturally turned into contempt, and finally into weariness; through it all, however, courageous Moncrieff remained, and, in fact, so does his main character, Allison, who states how he’d “grown savage now after a whack on the head from some passing projective, drove the scattered troopers—they were calmly sitting here and there among his own Jocks—like sheep before him on to the road—where they fell in and duly disappeared.” With the same courage our author demonstrated during the war, Alison goes on to describe his situation: “And now we ourselves were neatly sandwiched: for our guns had begun to shell an outlying row of houses just behind us while the enemy plastered the town and the fields in front. But we got out somehow, and by midday were spread out in front of the Steenebeek, and digging ourselves in for dear life with our entrenching tools.” Indeed, Moncrieff himself would’ve been no stranger to such experiences, and neither would the men under his command; the story, thus, brings to life not only the individual who was C.K. Scott Moncrieff, but also paints—and that precisely—a vivid account of the war; this is another instance where the author can be said to be inextricably linked to the work he has produced.
Moncrieff’s insights about people and his understanding of human nature are further highlighted in the war serial, “On Being Wounded,” which starts this way: “It is extremely interesting to have seen the business of being wounded from the point of view of a casualty. For those who only know the wounded soldier as a carefully washed individual ministered to by efficient nurses and seen against the staged background of a ward filled with sunlight and bright flowers, the reality of the thing cannot exist.” Many subtle things are happening here, and perhaps there are also aspects of his personality that Moncrieff himself would become aware of only later. It’s important to understand that our author, especially in his later years—but not only then—lived a life which was incredibly transparent and emotionally open, yet at the same time that life was also one of secrecy and necessary evasion: He was a poet, comfortable enough to reveal his own thoughts and feelings—to publish them as well; yet, he had to keep his homosexuality private. Later, he slowly began to be more comfortable with his own identity, revealing also that aspect of himself, but there was now something even more compromising than his sexual orientation—he’d become a spy, and truly, no one could know about that.
Moncrieff became aware of the difference between appearance and reality quite early—indeed much earlier than anyone else his age. Hence, reading “On Being Wounded,” the reader will by no means be surprised to see him ponder the difference between the world we see on the surface and what exists underneath it, all at the young age of twenty-eight. Already then, Moncrieff understood there’s a distinction between how the wounded man “presents” himself to others and how he “exists” by himself; the former implies happiness while the latter embodies the suffering only victims themselves can understand.
In addition, Moncrieff speculates about the relative nature of time, in the sense that we can’t pinpoint exactly when something happens—more specifically when a man has recovered from his wound: “But it is doubtful whether the man himself can make any more accurate an estimation of his condition. There is a continuous, insensible shifting of the perspective from the moment that he feels the thud made by the arrival of the bullet to that when he realizes one day at the end of his convalescence, that he is well again. The gradual changes are so subtle, the inability to reproduce any one state of consciousness when in the next is so complete that the most introspective must hope for nothing better than confused reminiscence.” Moncrieff, here, as an intellectual, is utterly ahead of any contemporary and even those who came after him: He’s realized something psychologists are only now starting to understand about human memory—that it’s malleable, open to suggestion, and rarely ever fixed. What we remember not only changes with time, it’s also influenced by the future—what we hear and see around us, what we’re told, and most of all our recollections, change by listening to what others want us to believe.
From the section “War Serials,” we move right back to Moncrieff’s earliest days, to the final part of the collection, which is the author’s poetry, divided into “Early Poems,” “War Poems,” “Love and Dedicatory Poems,” and “Satirical Verse.” One curious thing that may jolt readers is having to move from the early verse directly into the war poetry, and then finding themselves among stanzas of love. Upon closer inspection, however, the editorial decision seems sound: Even if Moncrieff, at a young age, did find out what it’s like to feel strongly about someone, it was ultimately war that made him see the fragility of human life, allowing him to gaze, truly, into the limitless depths of love. While his romantic poems before the war, such as “The Beechwood,” and even the earliest poem handwritten in pencil at university are certainly strong, it’s ultimately his poems written in the most terrifying states of despair which really capture love in its most naked, unforgiving forms—it’s in those works written after the deaths of his closest companions, Wilfred Owen and Philip Bainbridge, where Moncrieff’s creative power is at its highest. And would the reader expect anything else? I will quote the poem written after Owen’s death in full:
When in the centuries of time to come,
Men shall be happy and rehearse thy fame,
Shall I be spoken of then, or they grow dumb,
Recall these numbers and forget this name?
Part of thy praise, shall my dull verse live
In thee, themselves—as life without thee—vain?
So should I halt, oblivion’s fugitive,
Turn, stand, smile know myself a man again.
I care not: not the glorious boasts of men
Could wake my pride, were I in Heaven with thee;
Nor any breath of envy touch me, when,
Swept from the embrace of mortal memory
Beyond the stars’ light, in the eternal day,
Our contended ghosts stay together.
It’s truly unfortunate that life had to drag men like C.K. Scott Moncrieff to the deepest depths of despair in order to lead them up their creative mountains, but that’s often the burden geniuses must bear. This collection, skillfully edited by Jean Findlay, proves, finally and conclusively, what we’ve probably suspected but have yet to express—had Marcel Proust not written À la recherche du temps perdu and brought it to life for Moncrieff to discover and translate, the latter would’ve become an accomplished poet in his own right.
About C.K. Scott Moncrieff
Charles Scott Moncrieff was born in Scotland in 1889 and died in Rome in 1930. He published poetry in literary journals from the age of sixteen and after studying at Edinburgh University, went into the First World War as a Captain in the KOSB. From the trenches he wrote trenchant literary criticism, war poetry and war serials. Wounded out, working at the War Office he contributed short stories for T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, G.K. Chesterton’s New Witness and J.C. Squire’s London Mercury. Later as an editor at The Times he translated The Song of Roland and Beowulf and started on Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a work that was to make him famous. Leaving London in 1923 to work as an undercover agent in Mussolini’s Italy, he settled there. As well as continuing work on Proust’s lengthy novel, he translated much of Stendhal, Eloise and Abelard and some of Pirandello.