PORTOBELLO, £9.99 Order from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Proust's Overcoat, By Lorenza Foschini
In search of lost artefacts
Monday 29 November 2010
Marcel Proust worked at night. Tormented by illness, he would retire to his bedchamber, drape his old overcoat over the bedclothes for extra warmth, and draft and redraft that most voluminous of masterpieces, In Search of Lost Time – finally completing it only a few months before his death.
He left behind an enormous mass of manuscripts and letters, as well as personal effects, including the coat.
Most of these possessions fell into the hands of his sister-in-law, Marthe, who burnt some and would have been happy to destroy all. Vehemently prejudiced against his homosexuality and louche lifestyle, she did not wish Proust's name to endure.
Fortunately, Jacques Guérin intervened. Guérin was an insatiable bibliophile, tireless in his quest for literary memorabilia. He owned the Parfums d'Orsay perfume house and had the funds to indulge his addiction. He purchased Proust's desk and bookcase from one Monsieur Werner, a spivvy dealer who became close to Marthe. Werner was a source of many further finds. Guérin went on to befriend Marthe herself, and to prise more Proust artefacts away from her. Eventually he acquired all of the furniture from Proust's bedchamber. But the star of his collection was the coat. Werner had been using it as a blanket while out on his boat on the river Marne. Prior to Guérin's loving restoration, it was in a sorry state, its lining of otter fur infested with insects.
Lorenza Foschini's tale (translated by Eric Karpeles) has satisfying symmetries. Proust was fascinated by the concept of resurrection, while Guérin came to see himself as the saviour of Proust's physical heritage. Both Proust and Guérin present uncannily perfect illustrations for the notion, woven into In Search of Lost Time, that our souls can be held captive by inanimate objects. Yet the reclamation of Proust's chattels could never recapture his inner world. Guérin's literary taxidermy secured mere palimpsests: the paper that bore the weight of Proust's pen, the furniture that supported his body, and the coat, his constant companion.
For all Proust's Olympian efforts, his project to dissolve past and present into shimmering streams of recollection could only fail, since even the finest literary art ultimately must. This intriguing account of a collector's quest also offers an engaging, oblique perspective on the elusive essence of literary creation.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election
- 2 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 3 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 Naomi Wolf reacts to Isis 'conspiracy theories' critism after she questions whether beheading videos are real
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The golden age of TV comedy is here
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
From Marvel to Star Wars: The rise of cinema’s shared universes
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
Nigel Farage: Ukip leader named 'Briton of the year' by The Times
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever