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The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes

In 2013 Julian Barnes published a book called ‘Levels of Life’, which as well as confronting the death of his wife, also told tales of early balloon flights over France, early photography and some of the loves of the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Some is fact and some is fiction. It is a great narrative of humour and minute observations. From the description of this new book, I thought that it might be similar. In some ways it was, only with a little less magic.

It took me a little while to figure out who exactly is the central character of “The Man in the Red Coat’. We dwell a good deal on the visit of three Frenchmen to London in the summer of 1885. Expecting a few days of shopping are a prince, a count and a doctor. We refer to them frequently throughout the narrative. The doctor was Samuel Pozzi, who was painted by John Singer Sargent in a work called Dr Pozzi at Home wearing the red coat of the title, although it could also be called a house coat or even a dressing gown. Pozzi was, among other things, a society doctor, pioneering gynaecologist and free-thinker. Sargent had provided the three men with a letter of introduction to the novelist Henry James. So begins a long list of famous folk who appear between the covers of this lavishly illustrated book.

While this tour of the Belle Epoque in Paris takes in many native celebrities of the time, it also throws in a number of travelers, such as Oscar Wilde. To this stage Barnes also brings his own commentary, reflecting his own Francophile preferences and a fine grasp of the history and scandals of the period. The small asides and fragmentary stories are enjoyable and excellent. For example, “The fact the France was generally a source of Filth was common English knowledge by the time of the Wilde trials.” As the publisher of Zola’s novel ‘The Earth’ found when put on trial. That novel was declared to be ‘filthy from beginning to end’ and while a ‘filthy’ book might contain two or three passages of filth, this was said to contain twenty-one. At the trial the publisher’s plea was changed to guilty to spare the jury from having to hear all twenty-one read out.

This gem of a story is one of the many I enjoyed. “In 1896, during the Scramble for Africa, an expeditionary force of eight French and 120 Senegalese soldiers crossed the continent from west to east: their target was a ruined fort on the Sudanese Upper Nile. Frenchly, they set off with 1,300 litres of claret, fifty bottles of Pernod, and a mechanical piano. The journey took them two years…They raised the tricolore at the ruined fort of Fashoda, and seemed to have no more geopolitical purpose than to annoy the British. This they did, just a little…” Got to love a bit of historical trivia.

Barnes notes the imbalance of fugitives and exiles between France and Britain. France exiled four heads of state, and among others Chateaubriand, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Monet, Pissarro, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Zola. “The main reason Britons sought exile in France was to escape scandal (and be able to carry on their scandalous ways): it was the place to go for the upper-class bankrupt, bigamist, cardsharp and homosexual. They sent us their ousted leaders and dangerous revolutionaries; we sent them our posh riff-raff.” It seems the French were appalled and depressed by London and one of them described it thus: he “conjured up a picture of London as an immense, sprawling, rain-drenched metropolis, stinking of soot and hot iron, and wrapped in a perpetual mantle of smoke and fog… Along every street, big or small, in an eternal twilight relieved only by the glaring infamies of modern advertising, there flowed an endless stream of traffic between two columns of earnest, silent Londoners, marching along with eyes fixed ahead and elbows glued to their sides.”

The book gradually expands the story of Pozzi and his family. Barnes’ observations on biography are interesting. “ ‘We cannot know.’ If used sparingly this is one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language.” And “Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string, and nowhere more so than with the sexual and amatory life.” So when one art magazine labelled Pozzi “ ‘not only the father of French gynaecology but also a confirmed sex addict who routinely tried to seduce his female patients’. I was intrigued by such an apparent paradox: the doctor who helps women but also exploits them.” Pozzi is something of a paradox, generally doing good, but failing to make a success of his personal life and resorting to trips and holidays with his mistress of many years rather than his wife. We should probably stick with his medical success rather than his personal life.

One of my favourite features of this book are the illustrations: the colour reproductions of various paintings by John Singer Sargent, not just of Pozzi, but others such as the wonderful portrait of Madame X, and a portrait by Ingres in which the subject appears incredibly grumpy. But more than that, Barnes uses sets of contemporary postcards, given away in packets of sweets and candies, which include most of the famous characters mentioned in the text. There were three collections of these cards by Felix Potin, from 1908 to 1922 with each collection containing 500 cards. Even some English and American characters were included in the collections. They are a wonderful reference point for the multitude of subjects in the book.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Jonathan Cape. RRP $45 (hardback).


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