Wednesday 18 July 2012

Proust's Overcoat

I haven't read Proust. There. I've said it. Now, having read Proust's Overcoat I'm not sure that I want to read him. Perhaps I'm just not old enough to read him yet. 

I was vaguely aware of this book having read newspaper reviews when it came out I think, so pounced when I found it in a remainder store on a recent trip to Canberra.

Unlike James Joyce's Ulyssess, which I don't expect to ever read, I do still harbor vague notions that I might get to reading Proust one day. Til then I'll read about reading Proust I guess. 

But this book isn't just about Proust. It's also about Jacques Guerin, a perfumier, who was to amass "one of the most important personal libraries of all time." He had books and papers by Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Cocteau, Genet, Hugo, Picasso, Rimbaud and Proust. His collection was so important that he was twice visited by Francois Mitterand to try to secure the collection for the Biblioteque Nationale. Sadly, Mitterand left empty handed and the collection was eventually sold at a public auction at the Hotel George V in Paris in the 90s. 

I was a bit surprised to learn that Proust died so young (aged 51 in 1922). He had asthma from a young age and was quite sickly. He was a rather fascinating character- he lived in a cork-lined room on boulevard Haussmann, and worked at a frantic rate night and day "to bring his great work to completion in an incessant race against death."

The book starts with the author visiting Proust's coat itself at the Musee Carnavalet in Paris (another reason to visit next year). Although Proust's coat is stored away in a box and not on public display. It is a threadbare, dark gray wool otter-lined double-breasted coat. It is shabby and worn. 

Proust wore his coat year round. He used it as a blanket whilst lying in his brass bed in his cold, unheated room frantically composing his magnum opus. Indeed, the descriptions of Proust's obsession with his coat made me wonder about his sanity. He arrived at his brother Robert's wedding in 1903 not having slept for three nights and his "appearance was frightful. He was dressed astoundingly, swaddled in multiple layers of clothing; he wore three sweaters underneath a jacket, and three coats on top of that. He had wrapped his chest and neck in flannel, bits of which poked out from the collar of his shirt." I can only imagine that his coat still smells despite the cleanings. 

This is a rather fascinating little book, a mere 120 pages, but it spins a web containing Paris, Proust, his unusual family and Guerin's world of literary obsessions and perfume. 

Paris in July is cohosted by Karen at BookBath 
and Tamara at Thyme for Tea 


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I haven't read Proust either and it honestly seems unlikely I'll get around to it in this life, but I have read a little about Proust and he would make a good subject for a book. It seems appropriate that someone would write an entire book about his coat.

bermudaonion said...

I've never read Proust either - frankly, I'm intimidated. This is probably more my speed.

Susan said...

My only exposure to Proust was a couple chapters in a French class way back in college. I always thought I should read more, but it's way down on my should-read list. This book sounds interesting. Such an odd topic for a book but it seems like the author made it so much more.

Anonymous said...

I admit I've started a few weeks ago to read Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Swann's Way ever so slowly, and quietly, so just in case I can't finish it. I expect to treat it like a long term project, maybe give it a few months. Anyway, this Overcoat with only 120 pages sounds easy to manage. I might just settle for it. ;) Thanks for an interesting review, and the photos.

TBM said...

I haven't read Proust either, but he does sound interesting. I have a favorite coat that I pull out each winter, but I really hope I don't go crazy over it :) I'll keep an eye out for this book. Sounds like a great way to spend a rainy night in London. Thanks for the review.