Book of the week: The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes has always been at his best as an essayist, a biographical speculator, rather than in his over-determined fiction. The Man in the Red Coat plays to his strengths.

Barnes saw this extraordinary picture — Dr Pozzi at Home, by John Singer Sargent, painted in 1881 when its subject was 35 — in the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015, and he was intrigued by it, particularly by the man’s hands and the prominent, groin-level tassle of his extravagant coat. He hadn’t come across Pozzi before, despite his extensive reading in French life of the period, and he began to wonder about him.

“The pose is noble, heroic, but the hands make it subtler and more complicated. Not the hands of a concert pianist, as it turns out, but of a doctor, a surgeon, a gynaecologist. And the scarlet pizzle? All in good time.”

Samuel Jean Pozzi (1846-1914) was a pioneering doctor who established the first Chair of Gynaecology in Paris and published numerous important papers on surgery. Strikingly handsome, he was, although married with three children, a celebrated ladies’ man, or possibly a sex addict, his many lovers including the actress Sarah Bernhardt. His social circle included Marcel Proust and aristocrat-dandy Count Robert de Montesquiou, and he was for a time senator for his native Dordogne. A witness at the second trial of Alfred Dreyfus, he treated Dreyfus when the Jewish artillery officer was shot — and he himself was to die violently at the hands of a disgruntled former patient.

Pozzi’s story is absolute catnip to Barnes — and he has made from it one of his best books, very handsomely published too. It ticks all his boxes: immersing himself in the cultural life of 19th-century France, contrasting this with British insularity now and then, playing with life-facts, and puzzling about sex.

It’s a bravura performance, highly entertaining even if it covers some familiar ground rather didactically (Oscar Wilde, A Rebours, the jewelled tortoise, the Goncourts, Flaubert and Gustave Moreau, etc). If we don’t get Flaubert’s parrot this time, we do get Bernhardt’s leg (amputated in 1915, ostensibly preserved in a cabinet of curiosities but the relic lately proved an imposter).

Barnes, who loves such propositional riffs, starts off playing games about where to begin. “In June 1885, three Frenchmen arrived in London. One was a Prince, one was a Count, and the third was a commoner with an Italian surname… Or we might begin in Paris the previous summer, with Oscar and Constance Wilde on their honeymoon… Or we could begin with a bullet, and the gun which fired it… Or we might begin, prosaically, with the coat…” And off he goes. The book that follows maintains this musing, ludic tone, as it spins elegantly around Pozzi’s life story (previously the subject of a biography in French, Samuel Pozzi, chirurgien et ami des femmes by Claude Vanderpooten, 1991), teasing out what we can and cannot know, what the causes and consequences were in this history and how they might have turned out differently.

Scarlet go-getter: Dr Pozzi at Home, by John Singer Sargent (1881), inspired the author (Armand Hammer Collection / Hammer Museum )
Scarlet go-getter: Dr Pozzi at Home, by John Singer Sargent (1881), inspired the author (Armand Hammer Collection / Hammer Museum )

Pozzi appeals hugely to Barnes as a subject of speculation, especially in relation to sex. In a carefully weighted sentence, he summarises him thus: “Pozzi was a highly intelligent, swiftly decisive, scientific rationalist — which meant that life was comprehensible, and the best course of action obvious to him, in all areas except those of love and marriage and parenthood.” What could he find more sympathetic?

“Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string, and nowhere more so than with the sexual and amatory life,” he states. Yet although repeatedly reproving “sexual gossip”, especially when it’s treated as the shortest route to getting at the truth about people, Barnes loves to indulge in it himself, on a higher level of course. “We may speculate as long as we also admit that our speculations are novelistic, and that the novel has almost as many forms as there are forms of love and sex.” So that’s all right, then. And he goes there, down to the level of pronouncing on Sarah Bernhardt’s vulval lubrication.

Pozzi, married with three children, was a celebrated ladies’ man, or possibly a sex addict.

David Sexton

And to making Francophile man-of-the-world judgments: “The lotharios, Don Juans and coureurs de femmes I have come across in my life have invariably confirmed the wise observation of Francois Mauriac… ‘The more women a man has known, the more rudimentary an idea he constructs for himself of women in general’.” Ooh la la! Or, possibly, bof!

The other passion Barnes displays in The Man in the Red Coat is for Franco-British exchange, as exemplified by Pozzi’s cosmopolitan life, not to mention Barnes’s own career as Britain’s Mr Parly-Voo. In a pointed Author’s Note, he once more denounces “Britain’s deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union”, but says spending time with open-minded Samuel Pozzi, “a kind of hero”, has cheered him up.

“If Samuel Pozzi were to be considered for a new dictionary of quotations, it should be for this line, from the introduction to his treatise on gynecology: ‘Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance’.” A French word, chauvinism, of course.

The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (Cape, £18.99), buy it here.

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