Saturday, November 2, 2019

Book Review: 'The Man in the Red Coat' by Julian Barnes

I am not in the habit of picking up biographies of people I never heard of and have no idea why I should. But Julian Barnes proved me quite wrong. He did it in an unusual way, with a dramatic portrait by John Singer Sargent of Sargent’s friend Dr. Samuel Pozzi when they were both young men. Entering that world, Barnes leads the reader on a branching journey of infinite connections to everyone who meant anything in the Belle Epoque in France (1870-1914). Barnes sets it up as a mystery, piecing together clues. For someone who has never heard the name Pozzi before, it is quite a revelation and quite a trip.

It reads like a Six Degrees of Separation. Pozzi’s connections alone were more than sufficient to tell the story, but Barnes connects to his connections’ connections, their friends, lovers, haters, critics, customers, managers and acquaintances. And then their connections too. The connections circle back, and everyone seems to have been connected to everyone else. There are dozens of them profiled here. They range from Oscar Wilde to the Mayo Brothers to Dreyfus, Bernhardt, Degas and Rodin.

This sweeping expanse is doled out piecemeal, in anecdotes and threads that follow one of the personages through some stage or event. It also gives Barnes a platform to spout some of his own perspectives. Here’s one on the ways the English and the French regard each other:
“…Charles de Gaulle’s obstreperous and infuriating (translate into French as ‘determined and patriotic’) behavior during his London wartime exile, then later in his stubbornly vindictive (‘principled and statesmanlike’) triple refusal to allow Britain to join (‘disrupt’) the European Common Market...”

Pozzi was handsome and talented. He spoke English and French. He travelled widely, gathering new medical techniques as he went. He was fast to innovate, devoted himself to otherwise neglected women’s health and initiated new abdominal surgical procedures that saved numerous lives. He was charming, seductive, available and everywhere. He was there for the famous and nonfamous, there for the events, the history, and the parties. His own house held a popular salon where many of his connections reconnected and new connections made.

He led a wonderfully full life, outside his own family, where everything was tense and strained. His daughter in particular was a vicious piece of work, full of self hate, self pity and self destruction. Pozzi therefore dallied with mistresses, publicly, including with Sarah Bernhardt, the western world’s sweetheart. She called him Docteur Dieu (Doctor God). They hung out for 20 years.

Meanwhile, Pozzi developed into a celebrity in his own right. He became a doctor, gynecologist, mayor, senator and surgeon. He reorganized and ran hospital wings and surgeries. He was recognized globally for his medical practices and papers. He learned the critical importance of cleanliness and antiseptics directly from Dr. Lister in Scotland, and brought those practices to France. Despite, or because of his open philandering, he was respected by men and desired by women.

His attitude to medical innovation was “Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance.” That is, just because it wasn’t invented here doesn’t mean it’s of no value. This openness was his way of life.

Barnes is deeply involved in the Belle Epoque. He was able to post individual photos of most of the people he writes about, which is enormously helpful. And most of the images come from his own collection. At the turn of the century a French chocolate-bar maker began a series of trading cards given away free in the wrapping of every bar. It extended to three series, with hundreds of personalities of the era captured in black and white. It seems that everyone Pozzi knew was famous in his or her own right, at least enough to merit a trading card (and therefore an image in this book).

With all the celebrity connections, the cattiness, criticism and outright bashing takes up a lot of space. My favorite: “Degas said of Wilde after a visit to the artist’s studio in Paris: ‘He behaves as if he’s playing Lord Byron in some provincial theatre,’” thus outWilding Wilde for once. There are also lots of betrayals, infidelity, duels and murders. There is faded French royalty, both aggressive and dissolute gays (male and female), marriages of convenience and lots of hypocrisy. Truth that is as wild as fiction. And Pozzi figured centrally in all of it.

Barnes followed a lot of leads in filling out his stories, from diaries to newspaper coverage and biographies. But in the end he faced several pages of unanswered questions. They can never be answered, and it really doesn’t matter, but it shows his devotion to the period and the players. So it’s not really about starting with a dramatic painting, tracking down the subject and finding out a little about him and his circle. This is Barnes’ passion and expertise, and Pozzi has figured centrally in it for quite some time. Still a neat concept though, and Barnes presents it dramatically and entertainingly.

Oddly, the conclusion features, of all things, Brexit, and how the British government is screwing up the country and its future. No argument from me, but it sits uncomfortably with such in-depth profiles of rich characters from a hundred and fifty years ago. And mostly French at that.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. He is the author of The Straight Dope or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviewsLike what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.