In the preface to his translation of John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, Marcel Proust wrote that while some people decorate their rooms with things that reflect their taste, he preferred his room to be a place "where I find nothing of my conscious thoughts, where my imagination is thrilled to plunge into the heart of the not-me." Anyone who has stood looking at Proust's reassembled cork-lined bedroom at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris—his armchair, his pigskin cane, his brass bed—and tried, unsuccessfully, to feel kinship with his spirit would be relieved to know that he had such a desultory relationship to his personal possessions.
These remnants of Proust's physical life survive because of the obsessive quest of one man: Jacques Guérin, a perfume magnate and bibliophile who rescued Proust's effects from a fate worse than oblivion—destruction at the hand's of Proust's sister-in-law, Marthe. In Lorenza Foschini's new book, Proust's Overcoat, the author tells the story of how Guérin discovered and claimed, piece by piece, what was left of Proust's belongings, elegantly teasing out the relationship between family dynamics and property. Foschini also highlights the role of objects and spaces in Proust's work, allowing us to see In Search of Lost Time through a different lens. The result is an oblique kind of literary criticism, a material commentary on one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.
Guérin came into the Prousts' lives by accident, when an illness led to his being cared for by Dr. Robert Proust, Marcel's younger brother. Guérin discovered that Dr. Proust had all of Marcel's furniture, as well as his manuscripts, letters, books, photographs, and paintings. Through Guérin's relationship with the Prousts, we learn of the role Robert played as his brother's literary executor, exerting tight control over the publication of Marcel's posthumous works, including holding back the manuscript to the last volume of In Search of Lost Time: "In 1926, four years after Marcel Proust's death," Foschini writes, "Robert Proust was still the only person alive who knew what happened in Time Regained."
While Robert kept strict control over his brother's literary legacy, his wife, Marthe, was hell-bent on destroying it, systematically ripping out the dedication pages from Marcel's books and burning large amounts of his papers—at least until someone told her how much money they were worth. After Robert's death in 1935, his wife and daughter vacated the apartment immediately, leaving behind Marcel's desk and bookcase. Guérin was taken to the Proust apartment by the family's agent to buy some of the abandoned furniture. There, in the "plundered, devastated" apartment, he "keenly felt the presence of Proust." The furniture "seemed to be appealing to him for help" and Guérin bought it for 1,500 francs.
Foschini links Marthe's acts of destruction to the Proust family's resentment of Marcel's homosexuality, which, she writes, "surrounded him like an invisible and insurmountable wall. His family's unwillingness to understand led to a history of silences that mutated into rancor. This in turn was transformed into acts of vandalism—papers destroyed, furniture abandoned." But Marcel was certainly no innocent victim; Foschini writes that he shocked his brother and sister-in-law by giving some of his parents' furniture to a brothel, as does the narrator in In Search of Lost Time: "I never went back to this Madam's house, because those pieces of furniture seemed to be alive and beckoning me."
The idea of furniture being somehow alive underscores why Marthe would have tried so ardently to rid herself of Marcel's furniture and belongings; it also explains why Guérin came to think of himself not only as a collector but as an "agent of destiny," going so far as to crash the funerals of Proust's friends, "in search of more confidences, more souvenirs."
Given the abundance of Proustian objects Guérin collected, it's fair to wonder why Foschini concentrates on the overcoat. But then, the fur-lined coat seems the most tactile of relics—one can imagine bits of Marcel's DNA nestled among its fibers (even as one concedes it must have been laundered). It's a warm, enveloping, womblike garment; Marcel would wrap himself in it, as it gave him an extra layer of protection from the world. It was an intrinsic part of Proust's "look," which one of his biographers, Léon-Pierre Quint, described as "a cross between a refined dandy and an untidy medieval philosopher."
"The ultimate relic," Foschini calls the coat, "so evocative of the physical form of the writer." If, as Proust himself held, objects have the souls of people trapped inside them, it is easy to imagine that if Proust's own soul is trapped anywhere, it's in the overcoat—which, being too fragile for display, is housed in the Musée Carnavalet's storeroom. Perhaps if it were out along with Proust's other belongings, a visitor to the Carnavalet might, like Guérin, keenly feel the presence of Proust.
Lauren Elkin is a Paris-based writer who blogs about books and culture at Maîtresse. Her first novel will be published next year by Editions Héloïse d'Ormesson.