DURING THE FIRST YEAR of our current American presidency, I tried to escape reality by vacationing in Rome and Tuscany, immersing myself in the art of the High Renaissance. Of course, great art often brings the viewer back into the current era, reminding us of the timelessness of our griefs and struggles. At a time when it feels as if everything is politics, all art becomes political.
The British author Julian Barnes seems to have had a similar experience writing The Man in the Red Coat, his joyous romp through the Belle Époque.
Barnes says that he got the idea for this book when he discovered Dr. Pozzi at Home, a striking 1881 portrait by John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery. Barnes was mesmerized by the luxurious red coat Dr. Pozzi was wearing, the delicate depiction of his hands and fingers, the mystery of this now-forgotten dandy who hung out at salons with Marcel Proust, Colette, Guy de Maupassant, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Joris-Karl Huysmans, and not only slept with Sarah Bernhardt but, in his capacity as a surgeon, might have saved her life.
Samuel Jean Pozzi was a “society surgeon” and virtuoso gynecologist who advanced a then-radical notion that the comfort of the patient should be taken into some consideration, making him an innovator in women’s medicine.
Barnes spent four years immersed in archival research, and it’s evident throughout the book how much he enjoys spending time with this gang of dandies and artists. I have a feeling that Barnes, a lifelong Francophile and the son of two French teachers, was primarily looking for an excuse to hop on the Eurostar — the high-speed train connecting London and Paris — more frequently. He hardly could have anticipated that the borderless border between Britain and France would suddenly reappear, halfway into his research, as the British voted to leave the European Union in the summer of 2016.
This fact hangs over the book as a contemporary cloud, because The Man in the Red Coat makes a solid, if implicit, argument against nationalism and celebrates the historical cultural exchange between France and the United Kingdom. Barnes has written a political book, even if he did not intend to.
In a brief epilogue, written in May 2019, Barnes explicitly addresses Brexit, writing of Britain’s “deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union” and the English “prid[ing] themselves too smugly on being insular, on being incurious about ‘the other,’ preferring the easy joke and the idle slander.”
He admits that the act of writing this book was a way to deal with these frustrations, to make him less pessimistic:
Time spent in the distant, decadent, hectic, violent, narcissistic and neurotic Belle Epoque has left me cheerful. Mainly because of the figure of Samuel Jean Pozzi. Whose ancestors migrated from Italy to France. Whose father married an Englishwoman en secondes noces. Whose half brother married an Englishwoman in Liverpool. […] Who was rational, scientific, progressive, international and constantly inquisitive; who greeted each new day with enthusiasm and curiosity; who filled his life with medicine, art, books, travel, society, politics and as much sex as possible (though all we cannot know).
The Man in the Red Coat is a strange, delightful piece of writing, a nontraditional kind of nonfiction that doesn’t claim to solve any puzzles or provide any kind of neat, counterintuitive account of the Belle Époque. There is no subtitle, no chapters, no footnotes or sources, no snappy introduction or “chapter 10” summary of a thesis.
Like the oval galleries hosting Monet’s Water Lilies at l’Orangerie, Barnes’s account of Dr. Pozzi allows the reader to wander around aimlessly and just enjoy all the colorful details he presents of the era, enjoying the journey itself rather than looking for a narrative.
Even though Sargent’s Pozzi portrait reveals his face in careful detail, both the US and UK editions of the book cover have removed the face, as though Barnes wanted to allow the reader to paint their own novel-like image of him in their heads. One can’t help wondering why Barnes, having written a novel about a celebrated historical figure — Shostakovich, The Noise of Time — would choose to write a nonfiction not-quite-biography of an obscure gynecologist. It’s obvious that deep research went into writing this, and more importantly we can sense how much fun Barnes must have had along the way.
At times, reading it feels like having dinner with an old writer friend who, after hibernating for a book deadline for five months, can’t wait to share all the tidbits they discovered in the research process. It gets digressive but never tedious, thanks to Barnes’s wit, intelligence, and imagination as a storyteller.
Here’s how Barnes introduces the birth of Prince Edmond de Polignac, a composer, dandy, notorious gold digger, and close friend of Pozzi:
The Prince’s grandmother had been a close friend of Marie Antoinette; his father was Minister of State in Charles X’s government and the author of the July Ordinances, whose absolutism set off the 1830 Revolution. Under the new government, the Prince’s father was sentenced to “civil death,” so that legally he did not exist. Frenchly, however, the non-existent man was permitted conjugal visits during his imprisonment, one of which resulted in Edmond. On his birth certificate, in the space for “Father,” the civilly dead aristocrat was listed as “the Prince called Marquis de Chalançon, currently travelling.”
Pozzi and his pals travel regularly to London to shop for curtain fabrics at Liberty’s, hang out with Henry James, and discuss the British art theorists John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Barnes clearly enjoys the fact that the French cultural aristocracy, once upon a time, looked across the English Channel for the latest in critical theory. Of course, there are plenty of memorable insults between the artists and writers of the two competing cultural hubs of the era. When Degas meets Oscar Wilde for the first time, he’s unimpressed: “[H]e behaves as if he’s playing Lord Byron in some provincial theatre.”
If Barnes fights any persistent myth about the Belle Époque, it’s simply that it was uniformly belle and liberal and tolerant and altogether lovely. The cultural achievements that define the era in our imagination took place against a backdrop of intolerance, emerging antisemitism, reactionary bigotries, and chauvinism. Pozzi was not just a surgeon and doctor for artists and divas but also for Alfred Dreyfus. One of Pozzi’s maxims, quoted in the book, is that “chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance,” and while Barnes only hints at the antisemitism that would torment Dreyfus, he skillfully depicts the era’s reactionary ideas and blood-and-soil nativism as a counterforce to the generous spirit and joie de vivre of Pozzi and his circle.
Barnes is also out to explore the limits of biography and cultural history. Rilke famously said that fame “is the sum of the misunderstanding that gathers about a new name,” and Barnes is on to something similar when he ponders the unknowables of the past, particularly when it comes to closeted gay lives in an era where even depictions of homosexual acts could be a criminal act. “Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string, and nowhere more so than with the sexual and amatory life,” Barnes writes. He seems to have realized that nonfiction, if you do it the right way, can be as liberating to write, as free of formal constraints, and as true to life as fiction.
So what happened to that painting on the book’s cover, Sargent’s Dr. Pozzi at Home? After Pozzi’s death, it traveled to Brussels, Paris, London, and Venice, but today, Americans don’t have to cross an ocean to see it. Since 1991, Dr. Pozzi has been on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. In a time of resurgent nativism and reactionary intolerance, it is fitting that this radical free-thinker, anti-chauvinist progressive ended up in the most liberal and diverse metropolis in the United States.