Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini, Translated by Eric Karpeles (Ecco; $19.99; 144 pages)
“A rare and wonderfully written book.” Michael Ondaatje
“Proust had also been measured for an overcoat in plaid with a bright purple lining. He said he was going to leave it in the cloakroom…” William C. Carter (Proust: A Life)
A confession is in order here at the beginning of the review. I have never read the writings of Marcel Proust. The only sense I have of him comes from the charming line drawing made by his friend Jean Cocteau. The drawing is indicative of the clique of quirky artists who lived in France at the end of the 19th century. It is the drawing and collage-like cover of Lorenza Foschini’s petite volume that drew me to this book.
Don’t let the size of the book influence a purchase decision. This is not a casual account of the artifacts of a world-famous writer’s life. Rather, Proust’s Overcoat reveals the power of the collecting urge that can take hold of a person.
Jacques Guerin was the collector whose passion for everything Proust led him to stalk the belongings that remained after Proust’s death. Guerin’s perfume business afforded him the funds necessary to purchase the desk, bed, pictures and, of course, the iconic overcoat. The surviving Proust family members and a junk dealer named Werner made these and many other acquisitions into sequential victories that were celebrated by Guerin over the course of many years.
Just as a curator arranges the items of the museum’s collection into a catalogue, author Foschini has done the same with the written and pictorial history of the items from Marcel Proust’s life. The way in which his surviving family members treated the belongings revealed the mixed feelings they felt for him. Isn’t that always the way with families?
Highly recommended. A knowledge of literature or museums is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.
This review was written by Ruta Arellano. A review copy was received from the publisher.