The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes
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.