The period in French history between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of the first World War in 1914 is known as the belle époque. As Julian Barnes observes, there was nothing all that “belle” about it: it was, he writes, “an age of neurotic, even hysterical national anxiety, filled with political instability, crises and scandals.”
In his new non-fiction book, The Man in the Red Coat, Barnes revisits that era through the life of one of its celebrities, the renowned surgeon and gynaecologist Dr Samuel Jean Pozzi (1846 - 1918). Pozzi, who published his groundbreaking 1,000-page Treatise of Gynaecology in 1890, established France’s first chair of gynaecology in Paris.
He was one of those sickeningly multi-talented people who put the rest of us to shame: though a man of science he was well versed in literature and an avid art collector. In 1881 he sat for John Singer Sargent clad head-to-toe in crimson, and it is to the resulting portrait, Dr Pozzi at Home, that this book owes its title.
Barnes briefly ponders the eternal existential question: "Do gynaecologists make the best lovers?"
Pozzi was ludicrously handsome and in the words of his French biographer, “an incorrigible seducer”. Reflecting on Pozzi’s various extramarital entanglements - most notably with the Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt - Barnes briefly ponders the eternal existential question: “Do gynaecologists make the best lovers?” But he is more interested in the fraught dynamics of Pozzi’s family life.
The three women in his family - his wife Thérèse, his daughter Katherine, and his pious, provincial mother-in-law - all shunned him. Katherine’s story is particularly poignant: in a diary entry she lamented the “the inexpressible moral poverty of this man whom all of Paris admires or envies”; we learn that father and daughter had enjoyed a conspiratorial closeness when she was very young, but as she grew older Pozzi withheld his affection and she withheld hers in turn- a rift which had a profound impact on her life.
The Man in the Red Coat is a nostalgic saunter through the literary and artistic milieux of belle époque Paris - a lost world of dandies, duels and decadence. Pozzi’s illustrious supporting cast includes the aristocratic poet-dandy Count Robert De Montesquiou, who was doubly immortalised in the French literary canon: first as the inspiration for the dissipated anti-hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ masterpiece Against Nature, and later as Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
Barnes contends that, contrary to stereotype, the English are the more romantic nation: they believe in marrying for love
There are cameos from Oscar Wilde and the Goncourt brothers, but it is the figure of Jean Lorrain, poet, novelist and compulsive literary shit-stirrer, who really steals the show with his obnoxious antics. Obsessed with settling scores in print, Lorrain tried to unsettle De Montesquiou by sending him up in the title character of his novel, Monsieur de Phocas. Noting that Lorrain had good English, Barnes wonders: “Was ‘Phocas’ meant to be pronounced ‘Fuck-Arse’?”
Barnes, who has been a known and unapologetic Francophile ever since he first came to prominence with the publication of his novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, in 1984, riffs with tender affection on the little peculiarities of French culture. A group heading out on an expedition to Africa “Frenchly” equips itself with many bottles of claret and Pernod. The acquittal of Louis Grégori of the attempted assassination of Alfred Dreyfus, on the basis that he had merely been shooting at “the idea of Dreyfusism” rather than the man himself, showed “French justice . . . at its Frenchest.”
Barnes contends that, contrary to stereotype, the English are the more romantic nation: they believe in marrying for love, whereas in France you are expected to marry primarily for social position and then have love affairs.
Barnes’s prose style is almost exasperating in its studious sobriety. One longs for some linguistic exuberance to complement all this debauchery, but to no avail: if Julian Barnes were a high-street clothing store, he would surely be Gap. Luckily his subject matter is inherently interesting. As Barnes explains, Pozzi’s very existence was a provocation at a time when the prevailing political currents in France were royalist, revanchist, nativist and anti-semitic: a Protestant turned atheist, a free-thinker and a supporter of Dreyfus, he was “a sane man in a demented age”.
In a short coda to the book, Barnes calls out the “deluded, masochistic” nature of the Brexit project and suggests that Pozzi’s cosmopolitanism and intellectual curiosity offer an inspirational counterpoint to the boneheaded insularity of English nationalism.
The sentiment is worthy and the topical hook will be a boon to reviewers; but in truth the heady brew of human comedy - quarrelling aesthetes, salacious gossip, family dramas and gory deaths - is more than enough to be getting on with. Through-lines be damned: sometimes a journey is sufficiently colourful as to warrant making for its own sake.