Book Review

Proust’s Overcoat

by Lorenza Foschini, translated by Eric Karpeles

Ecco / Harpercollins


by Sheridan Hay 


Like a character gone missing from a W.G. Sebald novel – which is to say an invention more compelling than life ever offers – an enigmatic collector is at the center of Proust’s Overcoat by Italian journalist, Lorenza Foschini.  Sent to interview a celebrated costume designer for a television program, Foschini could not have known the story he would tell her in passing.  The interview concluded, she asks about Marcel Proust. Famous for his work with Visconti, the designer had traveled to Paris in the 1960’s for preliminary research on a film adaptation of In Search of Lost Time. The film was never made, but in Paris the designer met Proust’s niece who mentioned a “mysterious, obsessive collector” of Proust’s manuscripts.  They arranged to meet: 


I remember,” he told me, “A brick wall, a grove of horse chestnut trees, a factory.  This gentleman was the owner of a business that manufactured perfumes.  He received me in his office, a vast room with pink walls, lined with shelves laden with soap.  The scent of lavender and violet perfumed the air around me.  As he sat behind his desk, the image I had of him was of a large nocturnal bird, black and fantastic.  He spoke an old-fashioned French – marvelous, sublime.


The perfumer, Jacques Guerin, tells the designer the extraordinary story of his life.  As a young man, an illness occasioned a meeting with Robert Proust, brother of Marcel, an eminent surgeon.  Dr. Proust had performed an appendectomy on Guerin. After his recovery he decided to visit the doctor at his home to settle the bill.  Guerin mentioned he was an avid reader of Marcel, and the doctor gestured to a tall stack of notebooks on a shelf:


The doctor removed one notebook from the stacks and handed it to him.  The young man opened it and found inside an arabesque of words, scratched-out sentences, insertions, notes, marginal annotations; a cathedral of vowels, consonants, uppercase letters, lowercase letters, erasures, and changes, which Guerin scrutinized hungrily.  He strained to decipher the irregular, brittle, jerky handwriting that filled every available space, page after page.  Proust’s downward slanting script was exceedingly angular, entangled, hastily scrawled.  As described by his housekeeper, Celeste, Proust would write in bed, a notebook in one hand stretched in the air, his pen in the other hand.  Pages would scatter upon the bed and fall on the rug.  Celeste would tenderly gather them up with loving care and attention.


In his famous essay, Unpacking my Library, Walter Benjamin insists that for the collector “ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”  In the house of Dr. Proust, Jacques Guerin discovered the pursuit, the purpose, of his life:  to successively acquire every object Proust produced or owned or touched.  He would live in them.


Guerin’s life and search for all things Proustian shapes the rest of Foschini’s slim, perfect book.  It is the stuff of romance, of passion, with twists and turns, disappointments and discoveries, bitter destruction and miraculous rescue.  Benjamin again: “To a true collector the acquisition … is (the object’s) rebirth.”  Proust’s Overcoat uses the provenance of that remarkable article to trace if not the rebirth, then the afterlife of Marcel Proust.  He is resuscitated by his acolyte; found alive again in the lost objects that haunt the collector.  When Guerin holds an object in his hand, Foschini writes:  “Something that needed to be saved had found its way to him.”


The bizarre Proust family appears as fantastic, as imaginary, as Guerin himself.  Proust’s mother arrived at the wedding of her son the doctor in an ambulance; Marcel arrived in an appalling state swaddled in three sweaters, underneath a jacket, and three coats on top of that.  He had wrapped his chest and neck in flannel, and a young cousin remarked that he looked like Lazarus resurrected, “like someone in a cocoon made of black wool.”  After Marcel’s death, Mme Proust, the doctor’s wife, systematically ripped out whatever dedications existed in Proust’s personal collection of books because she couldn’t bear the thought that his name might endure.  The notebooks were only spared the fire when she learned of their potential value.  Untold quantities of letters and papers did not escape her fury.  A woman ashamed of her homosexual brother-in-law performed these devastating acts, but in a surprise twist, Guerin discovers Mme Proust hides a secret of her own.


Foschini describes the second-hand booksellers and antique dealers who supplied Guerin: withheld from him, teased him, fed his obsession.   It is a thrilling narrative, as refined and passionate as the collector himself.  (Guerin began collecting early; at eighteen he purchased a rare first edition of Appolinaire’s short-story collection, L’Heresiarque et Cie – subsequently worth millions of francs.  For a wealthy man, the bargain is an incalculable pleasure.)  Not just Proustian things came to obsess Guerin, Foschini tells us of other conquests, that “his was an insatiable appetite, a sort of carnal love for unique objects.”  He purchases Proust’s bedroom furniture, feeling “strangely, the furniture seemed to be appealing to him for help.”  It was his love of Proust, of course, that primed Guerin for such emotions.  In Swann’s Way the Narrator explains:


The Celtic belief that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in some lesser being, in an animal, a vegetable, an inanimate object, in effect lost to us until the day, which for some of us never comes, when we find ourselves walking near a tree and it dawns on us that this object is their prison.  The souls shudder, they call out to us; and as soon as we have heard them, the spell is broken.  Liberated by us, they triumph over death, and come to live among us once again.


This is, in fact, what Proust’s Overcoat miraculously accomplishes in 120 pages.  Proust and his devoted collector come to live among us once again – at least for the brief while it takes to read this small, exquisite book.  Marvelous, sublime -- indeed.



Photo by Marion Ettlinger


Sheridan Hay is a writer and teacher of literature.  She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her first novel, The Secret of Lost Things (Doubleday / Anchor) was a Booksense Pick, A Barnes and Noble Discover selection, short listed for the Border's Original Voices Fiction Prize, and nominated for the International Impac Award. A San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and a New York Times Editor's Choice, foreign rights have been sold in fourteen countries.