Thursday, September 9, 2010

Proust's Overcoat: The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things Proust by Lorenza Foschini


Book CoverIn 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!


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

12 comments:

Jenny said...

This sounds so great! I actually have dreams like this all the time, where I am trying to get hold of the papers of an important author, and their next-of-kin or executor or whatever wants to destroy the papers. Not sure what this says about me. But the book sounds like something I'd love, and maybe it would even get me to read (very intimidating) Proust. :)

bermudaonion said...

I know nothing about Proust so maybe I could learn something from this book. I'm glad to see you enjoyed it.

Amy said...

This sounds like a really interesting book. I have yet to read anything by Proust, though I need to at some point.

Suko said...

I read some Proust in college, although it sounds as if that's not a prerequisite for reading this book. Your excellent review makes me think that I'd also enjoy Proust's Overcoat.

Trisha said...

Proust is one of those authors I always tell myself I'm going to read and then quickly move on to lighter fare. Maybe if I read this I will have satisfied my Proustish side without actually having to read any Proust. :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Proust intimidates the hell out of me and therefore have never read any of his work. But his followers do love him. I do love the fact that this is a true story, and therefore educates people about the man behind the reputation!

Iris on Books said...

I haven't read anything by Proust, his name is so intimidating! but nevertheless this sounds like an interesting read!

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

It was good to read such an insightful review, as the last review I read on this one was not very flattering. Thanks so much.

S. Krishna said...

I've read about half of In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 but it's been so long that I need to start from the beginning. This sounds like a fun book!

Marie said...

I liked this book a lot, too. I read it in one sitting- a nice snack, as you say!

Amy said...

I have this book on my shelf to read and I keep meaning to pick it up but never having read Proust I was worried that it might detract from this book. I kept going back & forth in my head about whether I should read some Proust first. Thank you for reassuring me it isn't necessary. This book sounds quite good. I think I'm just going to sit down with it the next time I need a book!

Seems several of us haven't read any Proust - maybe we should have a read=a=long!
~ Amy

Suzanne said...

I read Proust (yep, the whole thing!) last year with a group on goodreads so I definitely recommend reading it with others.
Nice review of Proust's overcoat -- I am looking forward to this one.

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