Apr/May 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

Proust's Overcoat

Review by Ann Skea

Proust's Overcoat: The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things Proust.
Lorenza Foschini.
Portobello Books. 2011. 128 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 84627 271 4.

This is a curious little book. It is not so much about Proust's overcoat or about Marcel Proust himself but about a collector, a bibliophile, Jacques Guérin, whose passion for acquiring anything which had belonged to Proust—manuscripts, furniture, photographs, even his old overcoat—reads rather like a detective story.

Guérin was the bastard son of the famous French perfumier, Jeanne-Louise Guérin, whose own story, briefly told in this book, is as complex and fascinating as that of her son. As a young man, Jacques was trained by her as a 'nose' (one whose special olfactory gifts allow them to create unique and enticing perfumes) and he eventually took over the highly successful business of Parfums d'Orsay which she had founded. His real interest, however, and the primary focus of his life, became his growing collection of rare books, manuscripts and other 'treasures' and he had the wealth to indulge this passion.

Lorenza Foschini begins Proust's Overcoat by describing the way in which an interview with costume designer, Piero Tosi, which she undertook for a television programme, led her to Guérin's story. Tosi had begun to work on a Visconti film of Proust's most famous book, In Search of Lost Time. The film was eventually abandoned, but as part of his research Tosi had met Jacques Guérin, was shown Proust's overcoat, and heard Guérin's amazing story.

As a young man, Guérin became a fascinated reader of Proust's books. Then, a bout of appendicitis introduced Dr. Robert Proust, Marcel Proust's brother, into his life. Calling on the good doctor after his operation, Guérin was intrigued to learn that the massive and imposing bookcase and desk in the doctor's rooms had been inherited from his brother. He was even more interested to be shown a stack of manuscript notebooks inside the cupboard which comprised the complete works of Marcel Proust.

In 1935, shortly after the announcement of Dr. Robert Proust's death, Guérin was exploring an antiquarian bookstore in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré when he discovered some proofs annotated by Marcel Proust. Talking to the bookseller about these, he learned that the bookcase and desk which he had seen in the doctor's room were also for sale. He was introduced to a Monsieur Werner, who, over the next few years (and after much prodding and questioning) would sell him many Proust treasures which he had come to own through contact with Dr Robert Proust and his wife, Marthe. The final treasure, which Werner parted with after much delay, reluctance and embarrassment, and which he gave to Guérin free of charge, was a battered and worn overcoat which Mme Marthe Proust had given him to keep him warm when he went fishing. This overcoat, a dark, heavy woolen coat lined with otter fur, had been worn constantly by Marcel Proust from the time it was given to him by a friend in 1901. It had become legendary amongst his friends, because he was always seen in it, even at dinner. Finally, in the days before his death, it had kept him warm as he lay in his bed in unheated rooms (kept cool to help his asthma), pen and notebook held aloft, frantically finishing his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. Guérin, of course, was thrilled to have acquired it.

Guérin, writes Foschini, "had a taste for secrets and a love of hidden things." Clearly she shares this love of fossicking out treasures and in this small book she follows Guérin's tracks and tells, beautifully, his story, Monsieur Werner's story, that of Dr Robert Proust and his wife and something, too, of Marcel Proust's life. All of this is brought together by that battered relic, Proust's overcoat, which now resides in a tissue-lined box in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. Foschini's book also contains a number of the photographs of the Proust family which Guérin collected and, of course, photographs of the coat itself as Foschini saw it, "laid like a shroud at the bottom of the box." It reminded her, she says, of the words of another Marthe, Marthe Bibesco, whose memoir was published in 1978: "At the ball", she wrote, "Marcel Proust sat down in front of me on a little guided chair, as if coming out of a dream, with his fur-lined cloak, his face full of sadness, and his night-seeing eyes." The photograph of Marcel Proust which Foschini includes in her book shows him looking just like this.


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