Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Proust’s Overcoat

Lorenza Foschini. Proust’s Overcoat. Translated by Eric Karpeles. New York. Ecco Press. 2010. 128 pages, illustrated. $19.99.

Then he’d ask me to change the hot-water bottles, and he’d put an old fur coat, kept specially for the purpose, over his legs. He had another beautiful coat with a sealskin collar and lined with mink, which he wore going out when it was cold. But the old coat always had to be hanging over the foot of the brass bed.

Céleste Albaret, on Marcel Proust’s efforts to keep warm, in Monsieur Proust, translated by Barbara Bray (New York: New York Review Books, 2003)
Susan Sontag wrote that “To collect is by definition to collect the past,” an observation that seems trite until one thinks about it, as most of the getting we do in life is future-directed: books, clothes, food, lottery tickets. In Proust’s Overcoat, Lorenza Foschini tells the story of one staggeringly lucky and persistent collector of the past, Jacques Guérin (1902–2000), a perfumer and habitual browser of antiquarian shops and bookstores. He appears to have developed into a collector with preternatural speed: at eighteen he purchased a rare first-edition of Guillaume Apollinaire. At twenty he fell under the spell of Marcel Proust’s work. A year later, Erik Satie called Guérin “the charming bibliophile.”

In 1929, seven years after Proust’s death, Guérin had the good misfortune to find himself a surgical patient of Marcel’s brother Robert. Visiting Dr. Proust in his office after the operation, Guérin saw Marcel’s old furniture — a desk and bookcase inherited from his father — and stacks of manuscript pages. In 1935, several weeks after Robert’s death, Guérin happened into a bookstore whose owner had minutes before purchased hand-corrected Proust proofs. Thus began Guérin’s long association with the man who brought the proofs to the store, identified here only as “Werner,” a semi-mysterious dealer in secondhand goods who somehow — how? — had come into possession of Proustian property. Werner seems to have been something of a tormentor with a storage shed, always hinting at Proust items yet to be revealed. Guérin becomes not just a collector but a rescuer of all things Proustian, seeking out old associates in search of private revelations, developing a cordial relationship with Robert’s widow Marthe, and purchasing from Werner drawings, letters, notes, photographs, hairbrushes, rug, desk, bookcase, bed, and, finally, overcoat. With the coat comes the strangest discovery of all.

Foschini tells Guérin’s story with delightful ease and divagation. We meet Guérin’s mother Jeanne-Louise, a crafty capitalist, and learn something of the daily routine in a perfumery. We follow Guérin’s various efforts as literary patron (of Jean Genet, among others) and the dissolution of his collections. Foschini is especially good in pondering the complications and sorrows of the Proust family: father Adrian’s role in arranging his son Robert’s miserable marriage, Robert’s lack of interest in reading his brother’s work, Marthe’s unconscionable destruction of Marcel’s letters, the family’s general refusal to countenance Marcel’s sexuality.

Proust’s Overcoat is a wonderful piece of Proustiana, beautifully translated by Eric Karpeles. Think of this book as an imaginary documentary film, its subjects beyond any interviewer’s reach.

[Photograph from Proust’s Overcoat, courtesy of Eric Karpeles.]

Thanks to Ecco for a review copy of this book.

Related reading
All Proust posts (Pinboard)

comments: 5

Richard said...

"divagation": Hmmmm . . . had to reach for the (electronic) dictionary for that -- not complaining, mind you.

In any event, someone who "divagat[es]" "delightful[ly]" certainly seems like the right guy for Proust (as opposed to, say, Raymond Carver).

Michael Leddy said...

I think that must be the first time I’ve ever used the word. I picked it up while reading Ezra Pound as an undergrad, Pavannes and Divagations.

Unknown said...

Just thinking about owning something of Proust's fills me with a wildly covetous desire. Do you think Werner has anything left in his shed?

I have this book on my wish list but may have to gift it to myself, after your recommendation.

Michael Leddy said...

It seems that Guérin got everything. Werner is probably long gone.

On a related note, did you see the recent news about David Markson’s books ending up in the Strand Bookstore?

Unknown said...

No, I hadn't seen that. How does it happen that things that seem so precious and valuable to someone end up like that- in sheds, dumpsters or wherever? I once bought a box of old books at a yard sale and one of them was The Sun Also Rises. Inside it is inscribed "To Mark" and "Ernest Hemingway". I don't know if it's really his signature or not, but if it is, what had happened to Mark? If he's dead, why wasn't this valued by someone in his family or friends? Didn't he have any or maybe they just didn't care? Ah, if only things could talk...