In 1881 John Singer Sargent, then 25 and based in Paris, submitted his first portrait to the Royal Academy. Entitled Dr Pozzi at Home, it was a remarkable full-length study of a young, bearded man in a long crimson robe in front of a set of luxuriant burgundy velvet curtains. The sensual, sanguinary colour scheme seemed made for the subject. Samuel Jean de Pozzi, who enjoyed great celebrity in the Parisian belle epoque, was a society surgeon, a world-renowned pioneer of gynaecology, and an equally notorious womaniser.
The actress Sarah Bernhardt, on whom he operated, and with whom he enjoyed a love affair and lifelong friendship, called him “Dr Dieu”, Dr God, after Pozzi successfully removed from her an ovarian cyst, which was “the size of the head of a 14-year-old”. He was known more widely among patients and paramours as “L’amour médecin” – Dr Love.
Julian Barnes saw Sargent’s portrait of Pozzi when it was on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the National Portrait Gallery in 2015. Barnes was struck first by that decadent crimson dressing-gown and then by the life of its occupant, a man, he confesses, about whom he knew nothing, despite his avid interest in the period. That initial curiosity led eventually to this enjoyably obsessive study of Pozzi, in which the doctor comes to life among a vivid circle of artists and libertines, including the irrepressible aesthete Count Robert de Montesquiou, (known by his friend Marcel Proust as “the professor of beauty”), his sometime enemy the wolfish scandal-monger, writer and duellist Jean Lorrain, and a revolving cast of friends and sparring partners including the free-loving Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde, Sargent and James MacNeill Whistler.
Pozzi proves an illuminating figure ... a politician and senator as well as a precociously talented surgeon
The circle collected art, dressed up, gossiped ferociously, quarrelled, painted portraits, wrote confessions, and indulged in every available physical pleasure. A scandalous roman à clef A Rebours, (Against Nature) about Montesquiou featured in the Old Bailey trial of Oscar Wilde, in which the playwright repeatedly refused to condemn what was characterised by the prosecution as a “sodomitical book”, except on the grounds that it was poorly written.
In Barnes’s lavishly illustrated account, Pozzi proves an illuminating figure in this rare company. He was a politician and senator as well as a precociously talented surgeon, first specialising in gunshot wounds. As surgical director of a public city hospital he brought innovations in antiseptics and anaesthesia to Paris, and invited artist friends to decorate the walls of the wards with murals.
He transformed the practice of gynaecology, setting the first guidelines to a woman’s comfort in examination, and writing a definitive two-volume treatise that established the specialism in its own right. He found time to translate Darwin, become a connoisseur of all manner of art, travel extensively to everywhere from Buenos Aires to Beirut and became a lieutenant-colonel in the Great War. Pozzi was, throughout his life, a man of apparently boundless charm, “disgustingly handsome” in the words of Alice, Princesse de Monaco. A couple of years before the Sargent portrait, Pozzi had married Thérèse Loth-Cazalis, a “provincial virgin of 23”, heiress to a family that had made a sudden fortune from the railways. They had three children. The eldest, Catherine, a novelist and compulsive diarist, provides Barnes with invaluable insights into her parents’ unhappy marriage, and a shifting, intimate commentary of her father’s prodigious abilities and flagrant infidelities.
All of these appetites and achievements were set against a backdrop of great political volatility. France at the end of the 19th century was divided by a rise in “blood and soil nativism” stoked by propaganda against foreign influence. That despised “metropolitan elite” found its most dandified expression in Pozzi’s circle. The fault line was the Dreyfus case, which exposed a vicious culture war between conservative Catholic nationalists, and the freer-thinking, looser-living European liberals of the cities. The battle of ideas was characterised by fake news, confrontation between opinion writers, and occasional violence and riot. Pozzi, of Italian heritage, a subtle linguist, amused anglophile and atheist, was a natural Dreyfusard, sitting alongside Sarah Bernhardt at the trials.
Writing this book during what he describes in an afterword as Britain’s “deluded masochistic departure from the European Union”, Barnes understands the parallels with our present fractured politics only too well. Dr Love’s most-quoted maxim, he notes, declared that “chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance”. In all this biographical detective work, Barnes is as attentive to what he can’t know as what he can. Highlighting the limitations of fact and empathy, his book flirts occasionally with the tone of his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, foregrounding the writer’s present and the difficulties of accessing the past, feeling the way to where truth might lie.
In this spirit, Barnes addresses the reader directly from time to time, questioning how we might properly judge Pozzi’s hopelessly crowded life. His question snags on a recent art magazine article that blithely condemns the doctor as a “confirmed sex addict who routinely attempted to seduce female patients”. Though it is true that several of Pozzi’s lovers were also patients, Barnes finds scant evidence for this “21st-century coarsening of language and memory”; there was no public scandal in Pozzi’s life beyond the French sin of infidelity, no recorded accusation of professional malpractice. Should we, Barnes asks, simply condemn him by our own standards of transgression? His book makes a persuasive case that we should not.
The only woman whose evidence speaks against Pozzi in his lifetime is his daughter, Catherine – herself a restless and unfaithful lover of both sexes. As this story unfolds, extracts from her diaries examine her adult understanding of the man she adored in childhood without question. Catherine finds it impossible to forgive the manifold humiliations that her father visited upon her mother, but along with the author – and this reader – remains mostly in thrall to the “admirable, astonishing” Pozzi, right to his suitably dramatic end – shot and murdered in the consulting room by a male patient, a civil servant whom he had inadvertently made impotent.
• The Man in the Red Coat is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99