The Man in the Red Coat

Julian Barnes

 
The Man in the Red Coat
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The Man in the Red Coat

Julian Barnes

The Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending takes us on a rich, witty tour of Belle Epoque Paris, via the life story of the pioneering surgeon Samuel Pozzi.


In the summer of 1885, three Frenchmen arrived in London for a few days' shopping. One was a Prince, one was a Count, and the third was a commoner with an Italian name, who four years earlier had been the subject of one of John Singer Sargent’s greatest portraits. The commoner was Samuel Pozzi, society doctor, pioneer gynaecologist and free-thinker - a rational and scientific man with a famously complicated private life.

Pozzi’s life played out against the backdrop of the Parisian Belle Epoque. The beautiful age of glamour and pleasure more often showed its ugly side: hysterical, narcissistic, decadent and violent, a time of rampant prejudice and blood-and-soil nativism, with more parallels to our own age than we might imagine.

The Man in the Red Coat is at once a fresh and original portrait of the Belle Epoque - its heroes and villains, its writers, artists and thinkers - and a life of a man ahead of his time. Witty, surprising and deeply researched, the new book from Julian Barnes illuminates the fruitful and longstanding exchange of ideas between Britain and France, and makes a compelling case for keeping that exchange alive.

Review

With this ‘narrative nonfiction’, Julian Barnes leads us through the literary and arty world of Paris of the 1880s and 1890s, the Belle Époque of glittering salons and vicious gossip and social sniping as shown in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This Paris is lousy with decadent artists, desperate journalists and sickly aristocrats, and Barnes wants to take us on a tour of this magnificent menagerie, ostensibly – as he argues in his afterword – as an argument against Brexit. The rest of England, he hopes, will be reminded of what they stand to lose.

The focal character of the book is Samuel Pozzi, a lens of reason through which Barnes observes all the crimes passionnels, bedhoppings, shootings, bottom-of-the-gutter journalism (you thought you had it bad) and mental illnesses that he has uncovered in his research into the period. Although Pozzi is (only) a famed surgeon and gynaecologist (i.e., not an aristocrat), he mixes socially in the literary and arts worlds of Paris: John Singer Sargent paints him in the portrait that gives the book its name, and Pozzi is both doctor and lover to Sarah Bernhardt.

The book begins with an 1885 shopping trip to London on which Pozzi and his thoroughly decadent pal Count Montesquieu (a source for Proust’s Baron Charlus) are shown the sights by Henry James. But, actually, we spend the lion’s share of the book on the boulevards and in the salons and, because of Pozzi’s profession, the hospital wards of Paris. On the shoulder of Pozzi, Barnes delivers an account which both humanises and glorifies the epoch in all its glitter, wit and nastiness. Our grip on the characters is enhanced by painted and photographic portraits, the latter falling from chocolate bars sold by the Willy Wonka of the Belle Époque, Félix Potin.


Bernard Caleo is a member of the Readings events team.

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