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In Search of Proust’s Overcoat

August 30, 2010 | by

Proust’s Overcoat tells the story of Jacques Guérin, a Parisian perfume magnate, who was obsessed with the works of Marcel Proust. In 1929, through a chance connection, he met Proust's family, only to discover that they intended to destroy the author's notebooks, letters, and manuscripts. Guérin ingratiated himself with Proust's heirs, and through bribery and kindness, amassed a collection of Proust's belongings and manuscripts, saving it from destruction. I recently exchanged e-mails with Lorenza Foschini, an Italian journalist, about her book.

Why was Proust’s overcoat so special?

Proust's contemporaries, like Jean Cocteau, described his style as embodying an old, refined elegance. He was a real dandy, always dressed in large silk shirtfronts by Charvet, a double-breasted waistcoat, very light colored gloves with black points, a flat-brimmed top hat, a rose or an orchid in a buttonhole of his frock coat, and a walking cane. But even on the hottest days, Marcel didn’t remove his heavy fur-lined coat. This became legendary among those who knew him.

How did you discover this story?

Those who love Proust know that such passion often becomes a mania. This was so in my case. When interviewing the well-known Visconti costume designer, Piero Tosi, I could not resist the temptation to ask him if he knew the reason why the great filmmaker (Luchino Visconti) stopped production on his beloved project, bringing In Search of Lost Time to the big screen.

In the early seventies, the American studios allocated a lot of money for this project and there was talk of casting actors like Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, even Greta Garbo. Tosi was invited to Paris to go over production plans. It was there that he met a very special person. My book comes from the extraordinary story that Tosi told me about this man, Jacques Guérin.

I can understand the need to collect the letters, diaries, and notes of a writer. But can you explain our obsessions with a writer's personal objects? Why a bed? A rug? A coat?

It's because of Guérin that a draft of Swann's Way became available to us. The same goes for several versions of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time.

My book is a story about the incredible efforts of a great bibliophile. Guérin was able to save important papers that offended the bourgeois respectability of Proust’s prude sister in law. After Proust’s death, his family began to deliberately destroy and sell his notebooks, letter, manuscripts, furniture, and personal effects.

Proust's homosexuality surrounded him like an invisible and insurmountable wall. His family's unwillingness to understand this led to a history of silence that mutated into rancor. This transformed into acts of vandalism as his papers were destroyed and his furniture abandoned. Finding the coat is only the conclusion of a series of adventures and coup de théâtre that Guérin had to face. I do not want to reveal them now; you have to read the book.

Of all of Proust's objects collected by Guérin, which is your favorite? Read More »