Book Review: Proust’s Overcoat (Foschini)

July 11, 2010

*ARC alert*

Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini will be released on August 3, 2010 by Ecco, a division of HarperCollins (Hardcover, $19.99, 144 pages with black-and-white photographs throughout).

This is a toughie for me, because I’ve never read anything by Proust or taken a particular interest in him. Thus, I can’t honestly say that Proust’s Overcoat: The True Story of One Man’s Passion for All Things Proust held much for me. So just as a heads-up, my lukewarm response in this case is not necessarily because the book is bad; we’re just incompatible. I’ll try to be fair.

Proust’s Overcoat is just as the subtitle suggests– a true story detailing Jacques Guerin’s quest to collect and preserve the worldly possessions of his favorite writer years after the man’s death. Among these is Marcel Proust’s famed overcoat, which he used as a blanket while he wrote in bed. Somewhat surprisingly, Guerin’s quest is necessitated and made more difficult by Proust’s own family, who seem ashamed of their deceased son and brother and actively seek to destroy his mementos, especially his handwritten notes, letters, and creative works. Guerin is introduced into the family and the story by Robert Proust, Marcel’s brother, by sheer coincidence– R. Proust, a doctor, is called to Guerin’s bedside and operates to save him from appendicitis. From there Guerin is on a steep learning curve when it comes to Proust and his surviving relations. Apparently the fact that Proust was gay, a shared trait which made him all the more interesting to Guerin, was a large part of his bourgeoisie family’s determination to limit his legacy. Another possible factor is that he was an eccentric writer in a family of doctors. Regardless, Guerin pursues Proust’s memory in spite of the family disapproval, the culmination of his collecting efforts being the overcoat.

From the spare, factual prose to the littering of relevant photographs throughout the book, Foschini shows her beginnings as a journalist (relatively unknown here in America, living in Italy as she does). She nevertheless shows a passion for her literary investigation and for Guerin’s story, and the obvious respect with which she handled a somewhat fanatic man’s life work is touching. Though Proust’s Overcoat is short, it is a work which brings to light a good deal of little-known information about Proust himself and the man responsible for the survival of his physical memory. I wouldn’t recommend it to those who aren’t fans of Proust, but if you do like his work this could be an interesting trip into his life and his impact.