Julian Barnes’ latest is his eighth work of nonfiction, largely centring (in the most round about of ways) upon a gentleman known as Samuel Pozzi, a ‘society doctor, pioneer gynaecologist and free thinker’ during the Belle Epoque (end of the 19th century France to you and me). Pozzi was painted by John Singer Sargent, one of the great portrait artists of the age (an excerpt from which adorns the cover), and Barnes became somewhat enraptured by the painting to the degree he wanted to find out more. And yet, The Man in the Red Coat is far from being just the story of Samuel Pozzi.
This is a story of Counts (specifically the rather marvellously named Robert de Montiesquiou-Fezensac) and Princes (Edmond de Polignac), of the French and the English, of Proust and Wilde, of fading aristocracy and a courtly culture of literary soirees, scandals and duels. We follow the surgeon, the prince and the count to England where they meet Henry James and do some shopping – and then we plunge headlong into their world, and Barnes tells his tale in a worldly and resplendent way (you can imagine him, as if atop a throne, curling a wrist and idly sharing tidbits of gossip, bon mots and sneakily scandalous asides). Here, for instance, is his introduction to the period (look out for the snarkily arch reference to WW1 at the end):
“The Belle Epoque was a time of vast wealth for the wealthy, of social power for the aristocracy, of uncontrolled and intricate snobbery, of headlong colonial ambition, of artistic patronage, and of duels whose scale of violence often reflected personal irascibility more than offended honour. There wasn’t much to be said for the First World War but at least it swept a lot of this away.”
Barnes was apparently drawn to the conundrum of Pozzi first and foremost:
“..I saw in an art magazine that [Pozzi] was ‘not only the father of French gynaecology but also a confirmed sex addict who routinely attempted to seduce his female patients’. I was intrigued by such an apparent paradox: the doctor who helps women but also exploits them.”
And whilst Barnes takes issue with the “confirmed sex addict” line, Pozzi does seem to have been a man who didn’t quite abide by the ordinations of marriage. HIs liaisons form one of the many strands of the book (and you should know, if you were to approach The Man in the Red Coat, that this is not a straight story that runs from A to B – rather it is a circuitous, digressive, perambulatory stroll about the avenues and boulevards of the time – if you wish for a snappy page turner in your reads, this may not be for you. The Man in the Red Coat is a book one gives oneself up to, in order to move at the speed dictated by the words upon the pages themselves. This is not a book to hungrily gulp down; rather, this is a book to be sipped at, rolling the stories around your mouth like a rather fine red wine).
What’s more (and as you’d no doubt expect from a writer as erudite as Julian Barnes), in addition to a fabulous and exuberant range of stories (ranging from Sarah Bernhardt’s apparently apocryphal surgically-implanted vulva lubricating gland to a series of intellectual picture cards given away in chocolate bars that will have you saying, “Only in France!”), Barnes engages furiously with the act of telling, the mode of biography, the job of being a writer (this last perhaps least surprising of all given the number of writers gracing these pages). Here he is talking about three very important little words:
“‘We cannot know’. If used sparingly, this is one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language. It reminds us that the suave study-of-a-life that we are reading, for all its detail, length and footnotes, for all its factual certainties and confident hypotheses, can only be a public version of a public life, and a partial version of a private life. Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string…”
Of course, although he tells us these three words should be used sparingly, he uses them time and again in a way that is knowing and arch and frequently terrifically amusing. Oh Julian, you think as you read. You wag. Barnes is a strong presence in the book, his vacillating views on Wilde and his enduring love of Flaubert, as much a part of proceedings as the actual story of the count, the prince and the surgeon. Here he is talking about the occasional tribulations of the writing life:
“Any practising novelist will be familiar with the jocular-yet-serious response when someone newly met discovers what you do. ‘I’d better watch what I say, then, hadn’t I?’ or, sometimes, ‘I’ve got a great story for you’. You (well, I) tend to answer, ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ because it doesn’t.”
It’s a wonderful book, all told, a welcome reprieve from the darker strain of Barnes’ recent fictional output. You can’t help but wonder (of course) if there was a moment when Barnes considered novelising the story (in the way he did that of Shostakovich, for instance, in The Noise of Time) – only to discover that the story is perhaps more frustratingly ambiguous, more in need of the rescue provided by the flamboyant drapery of the Belle Epoque (and yet, also – didn’t you just know it? – more dramatic too, the climax of the story feeling like the most dramatic of ironies, at least as far as Pozzi himself is concerned).
Any Cop?: It’s a book to spoil yourself with, to luxuriate in, to dally alongside at a snail’s pace. Don’t hurry, don’t try to resist its charms, just enjoy being in the hands of a master craftsman.