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Books

Julian Barnes’s playfully incisive ‘The Man in the Red Coat’

By Andrew Fuhrmann
This biography of a suave Belle Époque physician doubles as a literary response to Brexit

The Man in the Red Coat is the most lavishly idiosyncratic sort of literary response to the result of the 2016 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. It is, if you can believe it, a biography of a French gynaecologist and art collector who was born in 1846 and who was painted by the great portrait artist John Singer Sargent.

Samuel-Jean Pozzi was a minor Parisian celebrity, a regular guest at high-society soirees and balls, and a favourite surgeon of the rich and famous. He was handsome – “disgustingly handsome”, according to Alice, Princess of Monaco – and known in his day as an incorrigible ladies’ man. He was always well dressed, with a preference for English frock coats, and seems to have styled himself as something of a Byronic hero of love and medicine.

Yes, he’s an interesting figure, and Sargent’s portrait is remarkable, but what has this suave surgeon got to do with Brexit? Well, there’s another side to Pozzi. He was a bit of a dandy and sensualist, but he was also a committed scientist. As a young man, he published a translation of Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. And his two-volume treatise on gynaecology, published in 1890, earned him European and American renown. It was a standard reference text until the 1930s.

He despised all forms of chauvinism, but especially chauvinism in the field of medicine. As Julian Barnes writes: “If the professional truth lay abroad, then he would seek it there. The argument that doctors did something a certain way because they were French, and the French had always done it that way, did not convince.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pozzi travelled widely, exchanging knowledge with international colleagues and observing the latest innovations first hand. Soon after graduating, he attended the British Medical Association conference in Edinburgh where he studied the principles of Listerism, the systematic use of antiseptics in wound treatment, which he then pioneered in France. It was to be the pattern of his long and successful career.

And so The Man in the Red Coat turns out not only to be a celebration of Pozzi’s cosmopolitanism and commitment to a mentalité collective that unites medical professionals across borders, but a denunciation of political isolationism, cultural narrow-mindedness and prejudiced wall-building of all sorts. Pozzi emerges as – and Barnes says this himself in a forthright afterword – precisely the sort of hero England and the rest of the world needs today.

Of course, Barnes doesn’t make this argument in any sort of programmatic or methodical way, as Pozzi himself might have done. This beguiling book is utterly unscientific. It’s a fragmented reverie where the ostensible subject – the slim, dapper physician with an Italian name – often disappears for many pages at a time. Instead we get disquisitions on the institution of dandyism. We get deftly turned essays on French and English attitudes to duelling. We get literary criticism and literary history. And we get observations on the cross-examination of Oscar Wilde in his disastrous libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry.

It all makes for a ravishing evocation of the gilded world of Paris salon culture in the latter half of the 19th century. This is a milieu that can’t help but seem a little unreal and fantastical, alluring in a phantasmagoric way, because its denizens were so passionate about dramatising and transfiguring their own lives as art, not only in portraits and plays and novels but also in the profusion of memoirs and journals and biographies the era produced.

Consider Robert de Montesquiou, a friend of Pozzi and an intimidating aesthete-nobleman who enthralled, among others, the young Marcel Proust. It was Montesquiou who provided the model for the sinister and censorious homosexual Baron de Charlus in Proust’s Recherche du temps perdu. And it’s weird how he now seems like a figure only Proust could have dreamed.

Montesquiou was also the inspiration for des Esseintes, the narrator of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours, that festooned masterpiece of ennui. The one thing almost everyone seems to remember about des Esseintes – even those who haven’t read the book – is that he owned a live tortoise whose shell was studded with precious stones. Well, so did Montesquiou, or so the legend goes.

But as intriguing as Barnes makes the world of Pozzi and his circle, he doesn’t want us to think he’s uncritically celebrating cultural elitism and luxury lifestyles:

The Belle Époque 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.

And he’s always quick to point up the parallels between the frenzied, cruel, vain and irrational Belle Époque, a time when a suspicion of foreigners was beginning to take hold in cities across Europe, and our own hysterical present, with its fake news and love of conspiracy theories, its resurgent nationalisms and persistent anti-cosmopolitanism.

Still, he rarely passes up an opportunity to dazzle us with some rich jewel or grotesque curiosity of the period, some curious bibelot vivant. Whether it’s a beautiful Moroccan-leather travelling bag or the bullet that killed Pushkin, ermine-trimmed professorial robes or the flayed hand of a parricide that the poet Swinburne had on display at a cottage rented for him in Normandy. And, of course, that tortoise with the emeralds driven into its shell.

(And speaking of charming objects – it’s worth noting what a remarkable physical specimen this book is, with its thick paper stock, its generous selection of coloured photographs and illustrations and its overall clarity of design. It’s quite different to the usual cheaply produced mass-market printings we get in Australia.)

But how many of those objects really existed? And how many of those outré anecdotes that we too often accept without question are actually true? The Man in the Red Coat thus becomes – on top of everything else – a study of tittle-tattle and rumour and the way fake news becomes fake history. Barnes shows how, for example, a bitter jest in a feuilleton gossip column might get repeated by a diarist then taken up by a wilfully credulous posterity as fact.

Pozzi himself seems to have been much trammelled in this sort of thing. Barnes describes how he once found Pozzi dismissed in a 21st-century art magazine as a “confirmed sex addict who routinely attempted to seduce female patients”. In what sense, asks Barnes in his coolly sceptical way, was Pozzi’s addiction a “confirmed” addiction? And what evidence is there that his seductions were “routine”? He concludes that “Pozzi never emerges from documents of the time as the kind of ruthless libertine – indeed, sex addict – into which he is being transformed by a twenty-first century coarsening of language and memory.” And so Barnes becomes less interested in Pozzi’s sex life and more interested in his life as a culture vulture and his achievements as scientist.

The tone of this book, its generosity to Pozzi and those in his circle, is markedly different to the tone of his last book, The Only Story, a chilly and laboriously schematised novel written in the immediate wake of the Brexit vote and published in early 2018. Barnes has been vocal about his despair over Brexit and those driving it; and The Only Story can be read – can, mind you, not must – as a venting of frustration.

Researching Pozzi’s life and times, however, seems to have restored his sprits, because this is such a warm and witty and surprising adventure of a book. It is, in some ways, a return to the exuberant, unclassifiable brilliance of Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes’s masterpiece: an artfully disjointed eschewal of a linear narrative in favour of playful digressions circling back to the subject in unexpected and enriching ways.

And who wouldn’t be cheered to discover Pozzi lurking in the archives amid the dandies and dainties? Montesquiou described himself as a devotee of “the aristocratic pleasure of displeasing others” and was forever quarrelling and falling out with his friends. Pozzi, however, he found irresistible. He had, says Montesquiou, an art of pleasing that no one could match.

And surely, in the context of a bitterly divided UK, in the lead-up to an election which has seen a spike in the number of death threats and threats of violence directed toward politicians, this is an art worth studying.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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