Collection is obsession. It is a perfect illustration of the 2nd of the 4 Noble truths of Buddhism: the origin of all suffering is attachment. Following, as it does, the 1st Noble truth – all life is suffering - possession doesn’t portend well when one ponders the concept of transcendence.
Obsession, as we all know, is never good for you. Even those of us who have one (or more) know this well. In fact, one may convincingly argue, no one knows it better.
Book collection, in particular, appears to be a particularly virulent strain of obsession. Those of us in the business see it all the time. Many of us fall victim. One minor off-shoot of this type of thing is reading about others with the same obsession. It temporarily takes our minds off our own nagging preoccupations and - who knows - one might pick up some tips for future use.
Oh, misery does love company.
Proust’s Overcoat, a slim little addition to the field of bibliophilia, is something of an obsession about obsession. How so? Well, Proust’s great masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (fka Remembrance of Things Past), is itself a novel concerned, among other things, with obsession, most notably in the form of love. There is Swann’s obsession with Odette. There is Baron Charlus’s obssesion with Charles Morel. There are the narrator’s myriad obsessions: first with his mother; next with Gilberte; with the Duchess de Guermantes; with Albertine, and, finally, his obession with capturing all of life, all of the past, in the work which became the novel we may now read.
And obsess about.
Then there’s this little book, Proust’s Overcoat, the 120 page memoir of Jacques Guérin, who is obsessed with all things Proust. The oddness of just how Guérin acquired his vast collection of author booty is fascinating. The thrill of the chase is intriguing, what was lost to jealousy and hatred positively scandalous, and what was acquired, including the eponymous overcoat and the entire contents of Proust’s room, including the bed in which he composed his 7 volume, 3500 pages plus magnum opus, simply mindboggling.
I won’t reveal all the details, sordid or otherwise. How Guérin’s obsession began, what role the overcoat played, the odd and wonderful (and famous) characters he met along the way, are all herein revealed. I will say that just before his death at 93, Guérin finally disabused himself of his most coveted worldly possessions, for which he received a sum that could hardly be spent in any number of lifetimes.
You can still see, however, one truly amazing array of what Guérin amassed in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris: the contents of Proust’s bedroom. Alas, the overcoat, which Proust used as a blanket on his bed while writing his novel -the heat was always off in his room due to his severe asthma and allergies – is too worn for public display (how it got that way is incredible in and of itself).
Photo by LWY
One hardly need read this 120 page book or all 3500 pages of In Search of Lost Time in order to understand the nature of obsession, but it certainly doesn’t hurt and I highly recommend them both. If you’d like something a little briefer, in this case by a classical master of haiku, these 11 brief words cover the entire topic very nicely:
Even in Kyoto -
hearing the cuckoo’s cry -
I long for Kyoto
translated by Robert Hass
PS. If you’ve ever wanted to dip into In Search of Lost Time and were just too intimidated by it all, I highly recommend the graphic novel adaptations by Stephane Heut, which might also appeal to high-end obsessors, as the translations are his own.