BEA Book Preview: In Search of ‘Proust’s Overcoat’

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prousts overcoat

By Eric Karpeles

Since October 2008, when my book, Paintings in Proust, was published, I find I have become something of an unwitting receptacle for a variety of responses to the great French novelist. Upon learning the subject of my work, otherwise well-read individuals become profusely embarrassed at never having read “the whole thing” or confess sheepishly to me that they could never even get through the first volume. When I reply to them that making a substantial amount of room in one’s life in order to read seven massive volumes of intricately interwoven text is not necessarily for everyone, I am rewarded with immoderate displays of palpable relief.

But I have also heard from readers far and wide who find relief of a different sort in being able to communicate to me elaborate details of their own transcendent relationship with In Search of Lost Time. (Wanna see passionate readership? Check out PP’s online website: http://thecorklinedroom.wordpress.com)

Reading Proust can be a compulsive activity for some people, a full-blown obsession for others. Any number of serious literary types remarked to me that once you’re hooked on Proust you’re ruined for reading pretty much any other fiction. So this awareness of proto-pathological behavior inspired by Marcel Proust already loomed large when a slender pink paperback arrived from a Parisian friend, a French translation of an Italian book called “Il cappotto di Proust,” by Lorenza Foschini.

I was so taken by the little book that I contacted the European publisher and arranged to prepare an English language edition. The brief story concerns an excessive devoté of Proust from an earlier era, and it reads like a succinct fable, although it is anchored entirely in fact. Jacques Guérin, a wealthy young man, heir to a Parisian perfume fortune, becomes an ardent savior of numerous personal effects left behind when Proust died in 1922. These objects, looked upon by Guérin as priceless relics, include the usual treasures sought after by bibliophiles–manuscript pages, letters, galley proofs, first editions– but his obsessive collecting habits eventually expand to include items of a more highly personal nature. Something is given away in the title– Proust’s Overcoat — but the pleasure of the tale is in its unfolding.

Preparing the book for press, I made my way to Paris to photograph the literary equivalent of the shroud of Turin. Arriving at the researcher’s entrance to the Musée Carnavalet, where the coat is preserved, I was met by the curator in charge of collections. As I followed behind her, we snaked our way up several stairwells and through the twisting, narrow back hallways of the former mansion of Madame de Sévigné. Before entering into the room holding the object of my journey, this scholarly, attractive young woman stopped and turned to me. “I must confide in you,” she whispered in exquisite French, looking deeply into my eyes. “I have never read the famous book of Marcel Proust.”

That the nubby, moth-eaten, fur-lined coat, spread out for my delectation, was worthy of such pilgrimage and reverence certainly puzzled her. As for me (whose sole devotion is to skepticism), once I saw it, my knees buckled under.

Proust’s Overcoat (Ecco Books/Harper Collins, coming this August) requires only a minimum of effort for a maximum of pleasure. With all the time you save, you could pick up “Swann’s Way!”

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.