Listen to this article
When did your own interest in Proust first begin?
I read Proust for the first time when I was 18 years old in Naples. One night I couldn’t sleep and found a small book, the second part of the first volume of Récherche, “Un amour de Swann”. It was fortunate because Proust’s approach was always difficult, whereas starting by reading the love story about Swann for Odette, was a “morbid” approach. It has all the elements which fascinate, the phase of falling in love, jealousy, possession and then the marvellous description of Odette’s house, her clothes. I spent all night reading it and from this time, Proust entered my life.
In 2006, you interviewed Piero Tosi, the costume designer who had worked for many years with the Italian film director Luchino Visconti. It was Tosi who first told you about the overcoat, and who gave you the name of the collector, Jacques Guérin. What did you do next? How did you start to track him down?
I went to Tosi’s house to interview him. I was shooting a television documentary in which the great costume designer of Visconti told everything about his life. When we had finished it was evening and while the TV technicians were dismantling the set, I couldn’t resist asking him what all fans of Proust were wondering: Why did Luchino Visconti renounce the dream of his life, namely making a film of Récherche? Tosi started to tell me about when the project became feasible thanks to the funding from the large American majors and he had the job of going to Paris to look for Proustian characters and places. He knew the aristocratic descendants of those who had inspired Proust’s characters but the meetings had been disappointing. Someone told him about the person who could help him. As I say in the book, Tosi went outside Paris to meet him and remained so fascinated by what this gentlemen told him about Proust, and amazed by what he showed him (the coat), that he never forgot it, not even after 30 years! But unfortunately he could not remember his name. The next day he found his business card, which he had always kept and which had his name on it: Jacques Guérin. I asked all my Proustian friends but none of them had heard of him. I spent nights on the internet and finally I ended up on a perfume site which gave his name as the owner of Orsay Perfumes. The site was by Silvio Levi, who represented Orsay in Italy and who gave me the initial information about Guérin.
You give the primary source for your story as Carlo Jansiti, the biographer of the French writer, Violette Leduc. How did Jansiti come to know Jacques Guérin?
I found out that Guérin was an industrialist involved in perfumes, but this was not enough. The research took ages until, still on the internet, I happened upon a site that talked about a book which spoke of several impossible loves. The author of one of these stories was Charles Janse. There was talk of Violette Leduc and Guérin. I located him through the publishing house and I went to Paris to meet him. I must start by saying that everyone was a little astonished with the idea that I wanted to write a book about a coat, even though the coat was the one belonging to Proust. Jansiti also found the idea strange but he was very kind and helped me, drawing a portrait of Guérin and telling me everything he knew about him. He also said that at 25 years of age, very fond of Violette Leduc’s books, he had left Paris with a friend from Avellino (a town in Campania) in a Fiat 500 and gone straight to a famous antiquarian called Madalaine Castaing, a friend of Violette’s. The lady spoke of Guérin as a great friend of Violette. Jansiti returned to Avellino, and for a year exchanged extensive correspondence with Jacques. Then she returned to France and went to the castle where Guérin lived and stayed there for, I think, more than a year. Guérin was then 85 years old.
Did you meet other friends of Guérin, or people who had known him?
Yes. I knew various people; antique dealers, collectors, writers, ranging from Jean-Marc Léri, director of the Carnavalet, to the writer and collector Giuseppe Marcenaro and Edmund White, who met with many others. All of them, with the exception of Jansiti who always spoke very well of him, said that Guérin was a man who was haughty, aloof but extremely fascinating.
Did you meet any of Proust’s heirs, or their relatives?
I never knew any of Proust’s relatives. I will tell you more about this: I went to [the village of] Illiers-Combray to present my book but when it came to publishing the papers, the grandson of Marthe (a hero in my book) prohibited me from speaking of my “Proust’s overcoat”. I think that he did not like the story about his great-grandmother, who burned Marcel’s papers because he was a homosexual and was intimate with a trader. Even now it upsets me to think of how Marthe censored Marcel’s intimate letters.
Robert Proust inherited all Proust’s belongings after his death, and served as his literary executor. What did you learn about the relationship between Marcel Proust and his older brother?
There is a piece from a letter from Reynaldo Hahn to Proust, a few days before the writer died, which I found very striking. Hahn (Marcel’s great love and then his great friend) was writing to the author about having met Robert, who was sad and downcast at leaving the home of his brother without being received. Professor Proust had asked, begged, Reynaldo to tell his brother to take care of him, feed him but above all to convince him to take him in so they he could give him the care needed to make him better. There is in this plea for a stranger to help his brother the sense of the relationship between Marcel and Robert. I think that up to his death the doctor felt remorse at not having understood in time what a great writer Marcel was, and at not having treated him with due consideration.
In the book, you discuss the antipathy that Robert Proust’s wife, Marthe, felt for Marcel. What do you think that was based upon?
Marthe is a bourgeois woman so typical of the period. But some of her attitudes of fear towards what is different can still be seen today in so many people, and not only towards homosexuals but also toward foreigners, immigrants, for example. Marthe burnt all of Marcel’s papers in order to destroy any evidence of his homosexuality. She did not care that her brother was a genius. The only thing that mattered to her was the dignity of the family and she was obsessed by the fear and suspicion towards someone who was “different”.
What else did Guérin collect, as well as items related to Proust?
Guérin was one of the greatest bibliophiles of the 19th century. Old books were his passion. However, he did not only have books and rare documents. It took six auctions to sell his wonderful collection. He had inherited a love of modern art from his mother: Soutine, but also Picasso and Modigliani were part of his collection.
Did Guérin’s obsession surprise you? Did you come to understand it?
Guérin’s obsession fascinated me. It would be wrong to reduce it to fetishism alone. Guérin felt like a “saviour”, someone with a calling to save papers, documents and objects from destruction. For Guérin, but also for Proust, the items, furniture, trees loved by people who are no longer here, still keep their soul. If these items are insulted by neglect and vandalism it is as if the people too are insulted. Proust in this regard cites an ancient Celtic belief in Récherche. And he, too, in a similar way to Marthe, has a strange attitude in the way he looks at furniture and objects. For example, he gave the furniture of his beloved parents to a brothel for single men.To go back to Guérin, I am convinced that his status as an illegitimate child (like Violet) led to his love of objects, books and things loved by others. Like holding, possessing, a spark of love.
You call it “the ultimate relic”. Can you describe your emotions when you first saw – and touched – the overcoat?
There is a page from Récherche in which the narrator, feeling cold, puts on the coat of Baron Charlus, which says to him, (I am quoting from memory): “Keep it pure, but now that this coat is mine and keeps my secrets, by wearing it you will know my soul”. I thought this when I found myself before what for many years had been Marcel Proust’s “second skin”. Touching it, I felt for a moment close to this man who I had admired since I had been a girl.
‘Proust's Overcoat’ by Lorenza Foschini, translated by Eric Karpeles, is published on November 11 by Portbello Books, priced £9.99.
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published