Book Review: An Overcoat

“It’s not hard, de Saupicquet once told me, to gain entry into other people’s lives: they generally leave the spare key under the plant pot by the back door, the usual place. But once you’re in, it hits you that they have gone out, and you have no idea when they’ll be coming back.”

An Overcoat, by Jack Robinson, takes episodes from the life of 19th-century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, and muses on them from different perspectives. The book is structured in scenes with copious footnotes. Beyle is portrayed existing in an afterlife where he interacts with people from a variety of times, including our own.

Rarely have I read a book that I feel less qualified to review. I had never heard of Beyle, nor am I familiar with many of the other writers mentioned throughout. Those I did recognise wrote works I haven’t read. Thus I came at this blind and offer my thoughts without prior knowledge of the subject being so imaginatively portrayed.

Beyle dons an overcoat as a disguise. Throughout his life he adopted many disguises in the form of pseudonyms, just as readers today create internet usernames. His attempts at masking his identity are compared to modern day habits of changing hair colour when dissatisfied with one’s own. Those who already know a person see through such behaviour instantly. A person may try to reinvent themselves – adopting a new look, name, place or occupation – but in time will revert to whatever they have always been.

Beyle was an inveterate womaniser who was obsessed with his sexual conquests. He desired Mathilde Dembowski, who he met while living in Milan. She rejected his advances. Many of the scenes involve M, her children, Beyle’s attempts at dissimulation.

He wanders the streets of a contemporary town, visits coffee shops, observes tourists, ponders the continuance of existence after death. Although placed in current times many of the scenes are based on what is known of his life, with footnotes providing references and tangential musings. Beyle concocts fantasies involving himself and those around him. There are deliberations on accepted absurdities. The author’s commentary provides nuggets of insight, the vignettes a sympathetic retelling.

Although somewhat rambling and meandering this was a curiously satisfying book to read. There is no story as such, it is more a rumination on a writer and existence. As a reader I felt a little overwhelmed at times due to my lack of knowledge. What I learned of Beyle did not endear him to me, but I enjoyed the playfulness of the portrayal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, CB Editions.

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