Chasing Lost Time by Jean Findlay

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Chasing Lost Time by Jean Findlay

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: A vividly drawn portrait of a fascinating man, Chasing Lost Time tells of a man who was a translator, a poet, a homosexual, spy, and much more besides. Wonderfully researched, Jean Findlay brings back to life a charming, talented and tragic man.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: August 2015
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099507086

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A Catholic convert and a homosexual, a socialite party goer yet deeply lonely, a secretive spy and a public man of letters, Scott Moncrieff was an enigma. His translation of Proust’s A La Recherché du Temps Perdu was highly praised, and Moncrieff was also celebrated as a decorated hero of World War One. Here, his great-great niece Jean Findlay skilfully retells the life of an intriguing man – and one whom I was utterly charmed by.

Born into relative wealth, Scott Moncrieff had an enjoyable childhood – his Father a Scottish Sheriff, his mother a warm, creative and intelligent figure. Moncrieff was clearly an incredibly intelligent child – letters show that he was self-aware, charming, and hugely well read. Boarding school proved a relatively enjoyable experience for the young Moncrieff, and his poems show that, even from a very young age, he was a talented individual. Whilst on a scholarship at Winchester College there were struggles to reconcile his homosexual feelings with his fairly religious upbringing and Moncrieff also fell head over heels with countless fellow schoolboys, prompting him to publish a story (with mentions of homosexual love) in the school magazine, resulting in him ruining his chances for further education at Cambridge or Oxford.

Instead, Moncrieff headed back to Scotland, studying English and Law at Edinburgh University. The arrival of the First World War led to the beginnings of a military career, serving from 1914-1917, converting to Catholicism, and suffering a serious injury that discharged him from active service and plagued him throughout life. A brief infatuation with the poet Wilfred Owen followed, but ended with Owen’s untimely death.

Moncrieff then took up a post at The Times for several years, and it was shortly after this period that, after several smaller literary ventures, he began the colossal task of translating Proust. He also moved to Italy during this period, with ill health constantly plaguing the writer. The Proust translations were a huge success – celebrated globally, and for many years the definitive translation. He combined his work on these with a period spent spying for the British Government, and his letters show that despite frequent illness, this was a funny, charming man who loved his life and his work. Sadly, Stomach cancer killed him at the age of 40, dying before work on the final volume of Proust could be completed.

I had not heard of Moncrieff before – my knowledge of Proust is relatively limited, and I’ve yet to have the spare time in which to read the whole of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu! However, stumbling across the biography of a figure unknown to me, was an absolute delight. The author is the great great niece of Moncrieff, and so has a personal connection to her subject – and as such it makes for a wonderfully warm and enjoyable read. Of course, it is rather hard not to fall for Moncrieff – a poet and a spy, catholic and homosexual – he’s a man of great contrasts, and yet manages to be overwhelmingly lovely in his correspondence (apart from a long running squabble with Osbert Sitwell). It also helps that he’s distinctly dishy in the pictures that remain of him – and whilst the War affected his health greatly, Moncrieff kept a handsome charm throughout his short life.

It’s also a rather wonderful account of the time period – from the snowy Scotland of Moncrieff’s Victorian upbringing, through to the various wonderful and well known figures that he encountered throughout his life. Bursting with personality, and clearly crafted with a great deal of love, Chasing Lost Time is a read that made me long to know more about its subject. Whilst he may have been unknown to me, Jean Findlay has ensured that the memory of C.K Scott Moncrieff will live on a great deal longer.

Many thanks to the publishers for the copy. For further reading I would recommend Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford The Biography by Laura Thompson. Rather a different kettle of fish to Moncrieff, Nancy Mitford and her fascinating family make for compulsive reading, and provide fascinating eyes through which to watch the events of the Twentieth century unfold.

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