Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff by Jean Findlay. Reviewed by John Cook

Moncrieff

What a fascinating life of which I had previously been totally innocent! This could have been expected to be a tome of praise by the subject’s grand grand niece with an interest in extended family genealogy and what looks like a promising individual. CKSM was born in a solid middle class Scots family in late Victoria times. The family had an impeccable record of public service (father was a judge) and the literary arts (mother wrote and was published extensively all her life).
He showed precocious talent as a boy especially in classics and literature generally but was also a solid all-rounder in manly activities including territorial volunteers. He was granted a Winchester scholarship but failed to continue to the great universities and settled for Edinburgh. He wrote and was published all his life but was interrupted by WWI from which he emerged as an honourably wounded Captain with a MC though he continued with his diaries and poetry which was published. While helping his fellow wounded and damaged comrades immediately after the war, he found employment post-war somewhat difficult.

He eventually found his metier in translation especially from the French. He pioneered the Chanson de Roland and eventually translated all of Proust even giving the work its initial English title ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’. He spent a lot of his life in Italy translating (Beowulf, Stendhal, Pirandello and the letters of Abelard and Heloise) and working for the British Passport Office as a spy reporting on the developing Mussolini era. As a man deeply committed to family, he devoted large sums of his income to the nine nephews and nieces of deceased family members he helped support. He once gave his occupation in ‘Who’s Who’ as ‘nepotist’.

So far, so good. CKSM died of oesophageal cancer at Calvary Hospital in Rome in 1930 and is buried in the Campo Verano. Even his family biographer agrees with his own sentiment and that of his close friends that his cancer might have something to with his life-long enjoyment of gay oral sex.

This man largely led parallel lives. Coming from a strong Scots Protestant background, he converted to Roman Catholicism for reasons of doctrine, aesthetics and because he found the concept of confessional absolution helpful with a vigorous sex life. He associated with GK Chesterton, Monsignor Benson and Ronald Knox.

He failed to be accepted for his preferred university because he unwisely published a startlingly confronting story of gay school sex before his candidature was considered.

He became closely involved in Georgian and post Georgian literary circles, sometimes comfortably (meeting Wilfred Owen with whom he fell in unrequited love at Robert Graves’ wedding) while he met and was supported by the Wilde circle with Robert Ross, Vyvan Holland (Oscar’s son) and Bookseller Christopher Millard who may have seduced him; and sometimes uncomfortably (his long enduring enmity with the Sitwells and their clique). He was also an early supporter of the young Noel Coward’s career – especially when lampooning the Sitwells.

He clearly appreciated the homosocial potential of military life but there are no indications of him acting upon his inclinations. In fact he was lauded for his enduring support and care for men with whom he served and was even offered the opportunity to write the official history of his regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

While living in Italy, he was a beacon for those in the know as well as those who appreciated his literary talents while others from street toughs to aviators appreciated others. The 21 year old Evelyn Waugh was literally distraught when he missed the opportunity to live with him and act as his secretary in Florence – ‘a year abroad drinking Chianti under olive trees and listening to discussions of the most iniquitous outcasts of Europe’.

Clearly a greatly talented worldly man of great charm and complexity. I should like to have shared a dinner table with him.

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