Proust's overcoat

by Lorenza Foschini

Paper Book, 2010

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Ecco, 2010.

Description

"A rare and wonderfully written book of literary detection that is heartbreaking as well as thrilling." --Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient   In the tradition of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman comes Proust's Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini--thecharming, endlessly intriguing story of a collector's obsessive search for the personal effects of legendary author Marcel Proust. This fascinating true story introduces readers to a truly delightful character--Jacques Gu#65533;rin, owner of a perfume company in France--and enthralls them with his relentless lifelong pursuit of all things Proustian, even the author's most mundane possessions.

User reviews

LibraryThing member whitreidtan
"You can't take it with you." How many times have I heard that? Yet despite this maxim, people are frequently still judged by their possessions. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than when viewing the possessions of famous people. When you go for a tour of a famous author's home, doesn't it feel a bit like a cheat if the furnishings are only representative of the period and not original to the author? Somehow, knowing that your favorite author sat at this desk or wore that dress makes viewing these artifacts that much more exhilerating. And to know that the manuscript laid out under glass is original? Priceless. So what if you had the opportunity and the money to collect your favorite author's belongings? Would you?

Jacques Guerin was the head of his family's very successful perfume business when he fell ill and was attended by the late Marcel Proust's brother, Dr. Robert Proust. While perfume was Guerin's business, rare books and author possessions were what fired his imagination and drove him in his obsessive collecting. His acquaintance with Dr. Proust and subsequently to an antiques dealer who also knew the Prousts enabled him to amass much of the collection he prized so dearly. Woven through the tale of Guerin's thorough and careful hunt for Proustiana, is a brief but instructive history of Proust's relationship with his unfaithful brother and bitter sister-in-law to whom Proust's homosexuality was a terrible and appalling embarrassment. The history works seamlessly with the story of Guerin's collecting and author Foschini's literary detective work to uncover both of these aforementioned stories. The book is slight but engaging and there's no need for the reader to be more than passingly familiar with Proust. I have never read his works and yet the story of Guerin's quest to save Proust's belongings from the flames to which his brother's widow would have consigned them was fascinating as was the short history of Proust himself. While this hasn't necessarily convinced me to search out Proust's Remembrance of Things Past with so many other books still on my plate, I definitely have to admit to more curiousity than before.
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LibraryThing member benjclark
I enjoyed this very short account of this fascinating collector. I wish there was more tale told, more about Jacque Guerin's passion for books and literature. That would be my main criticism: too short! Well written, engagingly told. Tangents were interesting and not distracting, but more conversational, natural. This was for the ARC, which lacked captions for almost all the images in the book, which I'm sure will be remedied when the trade edition comes out.… (more)
LibraryThing member kraaivrouw
A lovely little read - essentially a longish essay on one man's obsession with Marcel Proust and the things that belonged to him. Wonderfully well-written and interspersed with pictures this is a great pick for bibliophiles and anyone interested in collecting.
LibraryThing member zibilee
In this charming yet brief novella, a man's quest to liberate all of Proust's belongings from their sad fates of destruction becomes an all-encompassing passion that comes to define him. When Jacques Guérin falls ill with appendicitis, he fortuitously becomes the patient of Dr. Robert Proust, brother to the famous author Marcel. Guérin, already a huge supporter of the arts and an extreme bibliophile, finds this coincidence amazing and presses the doctor for information about his recently deceased brother. When Guérin discovers that Robert possesses many original handwritten drafts of Proust's work, he is amazed and excited but the doctor rebuffs him and quickly turns talk to other matters. A few years later, Robert has unfortunately passed away, leaving Proust's furniture and manuscripts in the hands of his widow, who wishes to burn them due to her conflicted feelings for the author. What unfolds from this point is the remarkable story of Guérin's attempts to collect the objects and writing of Marcel Proust, interspersed with the true tale of Proust's life. Marvelously uplifting and engaging, Proust's Overcoat is a loving homage to one of the greatest authors of all time.

I've never read anything by Marcel Proust, but his reputation precedes him and I do know that he is one of the most impressive authors in all of history. I was afraid my total ignorance of Proust and his work would hamper my enjoyment of this book, but I needn't have feared. This story is able to be enjoyed for its simple style and the colorful story it tells, and I imagine that it could be enjoyed by almost anyone regardless of their knowledge of Proust.

The story of Guérin is a very interesting tale. Though he was foremost a collector of books, when the opportunity arose for him to begin collecting the furniture, writing and minutiae of Proust's life, he needed no goading. Guérin believed that by acquiring the author's artifacts he was somehow doing a noble deed, saving them from destruction and liberating them from a nameless and shaming stasis. In his efforts to claim more and more of the belongings, he often did some strange things and made friends with those he would otherwise ignore. Guérin, a famous perfume designer, found that his work, though successful, was not what fulfilled him. In his quest to rescue Proust's objects, he found his life's ambition. At times Guérin is painted as being very obsessed with these belongings, not rude and pushy per se, but definitely dogged and driven to get his hands on whatever he could. I was pleased to find out that most of his collection had eventually been donated to various institutions, so that other Proust lovers could benefit from them as well.

A lot of this book also deals superficially with Proust's life. Though he died a young man, he had many friends and was well regarded by the artistic community. He was also a homosexual, which deeply disappointed his family and led to his own set of moral and personal crisis. He was a man who spent the latter half of his life in bed, tablet stretched with one hand in the air, his other hand writing the stories and poems that are now considered masterpieces. The book takes some pains to discuss the relationship that Proust shared with his brother Robert as well. Though the two had a sibling love, there were some extreme undercurrents of hostility directed at Marcel from Robert, and when Marcel finally passed away, Robert was left to edit and publish some of his last works. It's not surprising that Robert botched this affair and became quite a controlling and domineering person when it cam to finally publishing his brother's final work. The relationship between Marcel and the rest of his family was rather tumultuous really, and this was one of the reasons that his belongings were held in so little regard after his death.

Proust's Overcoat was an enchanting little snack of a read, and for those who don't know much about the author, this book would make an excellent primer. It's written in an engaging and light style and also includes several small passages of the author's work in relation to his life. It's a very interesting look at a collector and the famous man who left behind his collection, and I think Marcel Proust would have been honored to know just how much Guérin admired and esteemed him. Proust lovers will also love this whimsical little tale. A very fun read, recommended!
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LibraryThing member LisaLynne
This really isn't a book. It's more like a longish magazine feature (barely 100 pages with lots of pages of photos and wide margins). Still, it is a very interesting story. Jacques Guerin is a wealthy businessman who loves books. He meets Dr. Robert Proust, brother of author Marcel Proust, and becomes obsessed with acquiring and preserving the author's legacy.

The story of Proust's sister-in-law and her hatredfor and destruction everything related to Marcel, was pretty shocking. The way that Guerin acquired the items is pretty interesting - he tracked the lives and deaths of Proust's friends and relatives, watching for obituaries, showing up at parties and funerals, ingratiating himself with them and getting first dibs on the items and stories he coveted.

I think this is a great beginning, but there isn't enough meat for a whole book. There are some interesting tangents that should have been developed to add to the story, but it was still an engaging read.
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LibraryThing member proustitute
What a delightful little book, not only for Proustians but for bibliophiles alike. Foschini's reportage of interviews lead to the story of Jacques Guerin, whose interest in Proust grows all the more idolatrous after an illness sees him treated by Proust's brother, Robert. Ensuing, and led by his mother's model of business and collecting--a famous perfume tycoon and entrepreneur--Guerin becomes embroiled in the Proust family drama and rescues many of Proust's letters and papers from a near bonfire after Robert's death.

This is a book about Proust, but it's also about the legacy of a writer, preserving his work, and trying to see that his reputation is intact for the generations to come. As much as the memoir is about collecting--it begins with a wonderful scene recollected by Foschini in which Proust's famous overcoat is unveiled for her to touch, suggesting that the interest or fervor in preserving and collecting is one that is passed on to others--it is also very much about memory: remembering Proust, remembering his text, and piecing together the puzzle of his manuscripts.

An absolute pleasure, and strongly recommended to those who are fans of the period as we see mentions of, letters to, or fleeting memories of figures as varied as Visconti, Picasso, Violette Leduc, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, and Modigliani. A true testament to the power of Proust's message and his legacy, as well as the debt we owe to those of genius to ensure their posthumous work is treated with the care, respect, and love that it deserves.
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LibraryThing member wonderperson
An inspiring extended long article in book form about how a Parisian Society man a perfumer who runs a successful Perfumers, rescues Marcel Proust possessions for eternity; the struggle to in effect get his possessions and in a sense becoming an Archivist resulting in Marcel Prousts stuff without the famous overcoat becoming a Museum.… (more)
LibraryThing member E.J
This was a first reads book.

I thought this book was quite good actually, but so short it couldn't go in depth enough to actually learn much. And I thought Guerin (the guy stalking down Proust's possessions) was a wildly odd and funny guy and I would have enjoyed finding out more about him. The book itself was short and really only half was about Guerin, the other half was about Proust and his brother. I liked what I read but I sort of thought why bother doing it only half way?

I completely forgot to put how much I loved the cover. It would have made me buy it if I hadn't won it on first reads. It is superfantastic. Maybe I should just frame it and hang it over my bookshelf.
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LibraryThing member KrisR
In this lovely short book, Foschini chronicles the diligent (and obsessive) commitment of Jacques Guérin to rescue as many of Marcel Proust's belongings as he could from the ravages of time and the destructive maelstrom of Proust's sister-in-law, who sought to obliterate any reminders of her brother-in-law out of a concern for bourgeois respectability and frustration over an unhappy marriage to Proust's brother Robert. Foschini constructs a multi-layered work: introducing Guérin's efforts to use his fortune to save everything he could, from photographs and letters written by and to Proust, to pieces of furniture and Proust's fur-lined overcoat; weaving in excerpts from In Search of Lost Time and episodes from Proust's life; and providing thoughtful passages on the ways in which material possessions embody some of the essence of their former owners.

I particularly appreciated Foschini's ability to evoke the excitement of a collector opening an old hatbox and discovering tangible remnants of Proust's life captures in sketches, letters, notes, and old photographs. Anyone who has had the privilege of touching a manscript and feeling an electric connection with the past, with genius, will recognize those feelings in Foschini's book. Numerous photographs throughout the text provide the reader with tangible hooks into Foschini's story. Recommended for fans of Proust, for people interested in the phenomenon of collecting, and for those who seek to preserve the memory of a loved one in material possessions left behind.
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LibraryThing member emiliom
interesting and passionate. describes the passion of a great collectionner Jacques Guerin
LibraryThing member beserene
There seems to be quite a bit of buzz among literary folk about this slim volume (to be published in August 2010), so I was pretty excited when I received an advance reader copy through Shelf Awareness. Unfortunately, my excitement didn't last once I started reading. Though the story of Jacques Guerin, the man who collected and preserved many of Proust's manuscripts and artifacts, is interesting, I found the book itself to be scattered and difficult to follow. The double and sometimes triple narrative rambles in a conversational style that could be deliberate -- an homage to Proust himself, perhaps -- but also could be due to the author being a better researcher than writer. Part of the problem is a general lack of transitions and identifiers -- and this could be simply a result of translation or something that will be polished out of the final draft -- but that lack makes it difficult for the reader to follow the jumps from Guerin's narrative to Proust's and back again. The inclusion of the author herself and her own experience with the title object further complicates things -- though mostly confined to the introductory and concluding sections, there were moments when the author's insertions in the first person seemed intrusive.

Luckily, the book is short enough that the often choppy, occasionally awkward style is not too much of a detriment. There is still quite a bit of charm here, particularly for those who love Proust or for whom collecting is a religion rather than a hobby. Guerin and Proust are given light, affectionate treatment and the book includes tantalizing connections to the great man's work, which may inspire the reader to seek out Proust in a fuller sense. Though not for everyone, this brief taste of a book could be a gateway for those who have always wanted to read Proust or a sweet bit of nostalgia for those already acquainted with him. If you don't fall into either of those categories, however, you might want to skip this one. Perhaps I am a little too mainstream, but I don't see much here for those who don't already have a foundation of strong interest in the specific subject of Proust. Comparisons (in blurbs on the copy) to Simon Winchester's more broadly oriented 'The Professor and the Madman' seem a little unfounded.
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LibraryThing member BlackSheepDances
The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things Proust

You'll find this book in the biography section of the bookstore, but at first it's difficult to decide who the biography is about....One the surface, it would seem to be a book about Proust, author of the iconic Remembrance of Things Past (which is incredibly difficult to get through), and/or his overcoat. Actually, the biographical elements are about several intriguing people in the orbit around Proust's life, and all of them would make worthy topics of their own biography. Combined, they make this study fascinating.

Foremost, the biography is of Jacques Guerin, an avid (rabid?) collector of all things Proust. His obsession leads him to search for anything related to the author, from old letters to furniture to ultimately, a personal garment of the man. At times his devotion is creepy, yet he seems to be completely harmless. His own life story is interesting, and his biography is well-researched. Foschini shows her skill as a biographer because she skillfully reveals personal characteristics about Guerin, but she also knows Proust's work, so when she makes a statement about Guerin she's able to actually use a Proust quote to elaborate on his fetish. As she tells about Guerin, she is also relating the biography of Proust, from his birth to his death. It's an interesting way of switching back and forth from the collector to the collected. So is it a biography of these two men? Where does the overcoat come in?

The overcoat itself, seemingly trivial, becomes part of the mystery of Proust, as many pictures (included in the book) show him in it. Foschini quotes various authors of the era, all who referred to the overcoat as one of the elements of Proust's persona. Foschini even incorporates her own search for the overcoat within the book.

She also intertwines the story of a collector who helps Guerin in his search, and who is a fascinating character with his own complicated connection to Proust. Adrien Proust, Marcel's brother, and his wife, Marthe, are also discussed in detail. The revelations are never dry, but often amusing. For example, Marthe gets a glimpse of what she is marrying into when her mother-in-law arrives at the wedding in an ambulance, and her brother-in-law tells others the wedding nearly killed him and he had to retire to bed for weeks to recover. Nice!

Marthe is an intriguing person at the center of the biography as she had much of Proust's works destroyed as soon as her husband died and she could get away with it. Foschini reveals why Marthe harbored so much anger at Marcel Proust, and how intently she tried to escape the family connection. The combination of all these interesting people makes this a too-brief biography that reads much easier than Proust (I believe it was Jon Stewart who said that anyone who reads Proust at the beach can be clinically defined as an insufferable ass).
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LibraryThing member proustitute
What a delightful little book, not only for Proustians but for bibliophiles alike. Foschini's reportage of interviews lead to the story of Jacques Guerin, whose interest in Proust grows all the more idolatrous after an illness sees him treated by Proust's brother, Robert. Ensuing, and led by his mother's model of business and collecting--a famous perfume tycoon and entrepreneur--Guerin becomes embroiled in the Proust family drama and rescues many of Proust's letters and papers from a near bonfire after Robert's death.

This is a book about Proust, but it's also about the legacy of a writer, preserving his work, and trying to see that his reputation is intact for the generations to come. As much as the memoir is about collecting--it begins with a wonderful scene recollected by Foschini in which Proust's famous overcoat is unveiled for her to touch, suggesting that the interest or fervor in preserving and collecting is one that is passed on to others--it is also very much about memory: remembering Proust, remembering his text, and piecing together the puzzle of his manuscripts.

An absolute pleasure, and strongly recommended to those who are fans of the period as we see mentions of, letters to, or fleeting memories of figures as varied as Visconti, Picasso, Violette Leduc, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, and Modigliani. A true testament to the power of Proust's message and his legacy, as well as the debt we owe to those of genius to ensure their posthumous work is treated with the care, respect, and love that it deserves.
… (more)
LibraryThing member shellyquade
This slim volume recounts the obsessive need of collector Jacques Guerin to possess the former belongings of Marcel Proust. Letters, first editions, furniture... anything that was once important to, or written by Proust, Guerin wants to see, touch, and experience.

Basically, Guerin was rich, having inherited a perfume company his mother made great, and he thought Proust was a genius. Guerin also met Marcel's brother, having become ill, and luckily having physician Robert Proust visit his house to check on his health.

This contact with Robert Proust, and seeing a draft of Marcel's work, inspired a passion in Guerin to see all of Marcel's things.

The overcoat, being one of Marcel Proust's trademarks, basically something Marcel LIVED in, even in warm weather, is the coup de grace.

This book is an interesting look at what the material things left behind say about the person who used to own them, and the importance of those belongings to the people who cared about you.

It was interesting, it was informative, and it read very quickly.

I think this book would be great for Proust admirers, or as a quirky gift to someone else. It will be released in August of this year.
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LibraryThing member highvoltagegrrl
In reading about Guerin’s obsessive nature over the personal items that once belonged to Marcel Proust, I became thrilled each time Guerin discovered something new. I’m not a collector and have never put much stock into material goods, but I can now see what other people must see when they look at some inanimate objects. Lorenza Foschini wrote about Guerin’s search in such a way that had me rooting along for him to find the next thing and the next and the next. Guerin was so enamored by Proust that the ending to the book, the end of his quest, was beautiful and very fitting for someone of his nature. The story is so easy to fall into that I read it quickly and effortlessly. I couldn’t believe the things that people would destroy out of dislike for an individual and it saddens me to realize that there may be many wonderful stories out there that have been lost or simply forgotten about over time. I’m hoping there are others like Guerin out there that keep searching for the hidden treasures and bring them to light for the rest of us.… (more)

Language

Original language

Italian
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