The Man in the Red Coat
- By Julian Barnes
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak
- February 25, 2020
A tour-de-force account of La Belle Époque’s luminary figures.
With Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes’ trademark acerbic wit, The Man in the Red Coat very cleverly starts out sounding like the setup for a traditional barroom joke: In June 1885, three Frenchmen — a count, a prince, and a commoner — arrive in London for an “intellectual and decorative” shopping spree.
They are 30-year-old Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, 51-year-old Prince Edmond de Polignac, and 38-year-old commoner (with an Italian name) Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi. In Barnes’ deft hands, their extravagant excursion through Liberty & Co’s “seaweed-coloured curtain material” and Bond Street’s “tweeds and suitings” seamlessly segues into a heady biographical bonanza of an entire period, the indulgent Belle Epoque and the beau monde that went along with it.
The monde was more beau for some than others.
From 1871 to 1914, the Beautiful Epoch was a time of “peace and pleasure, glamour with more than a brush of decadence, a last flowering of the arts, and last flowering of a settled high society.” It was a period of “vast wealth for the wealthy, of social power for the aristocracy, of uncontrolled and intricate snobbery, of headlong colonial ambition, of artistic patronage.”
The libertine triplets fit right in, but it’s Pozzi who captures the most attention in the book. It’s he who is depicted in the red coat in “Dr. Pozzi at Home,” an 1881 painting by John Singer Sargent. When Barnes first encountered the full-length study in scarlet in 2015 at the National Gallery in London, he was taken by the crimson dressing gown, but even more captivated by its occupant.
Despite knowing a great deal about late-19th-century France, he admits to knowing nothing about Pozzi. Eventually, he and the reader come to learn quite a bit about the philandering physician and his circle of bon vivants.
The trio of aesthetic confreres indulged in flamboyant fabrics and high-end dining and debauchery. It also immersed itself in art, politics, literature, theater, history, religion, science, and surgery. In fact, in a full lay-about of sybaritic lubriciousness.
Pozzi’s scheme was medicine. Surgeon to celebrities (most notably, Sarah Bernhardt; she called him “Docteur Dieu”), he was an accomplished gynecologist responsible for introducing patient-friendly anesthesia, Joseph Lister’s methods of antisepsis, and the warm speculum to Parisian hospitals. He held the first chair of gynecology in Paris; his 1890 A Treatise on Gynaecology was the definitive work on the subject and remained the standard textbook in France into the 1930s.
His practice suited his personal predilections and peccadilloes. Pozzi was a notorious womanizer. Barnes describes the Sargent painting as putting his seductive traits on full display — “bearded, virile, slender.” Alice, princess of Monaco, declared him “disgustingly handsome.”
Married to Therese Loth-Cazalis, heiress to a railway fortune, there was a third party in Pozzi’s domestic arrangement: Therese’s mother. Her constant presence, according to Pozzi, left the couple with “the best public relationship in the eyes of the world, but no intimacy.” Pozzi’s flings led to 30 years of “public marriage and endured gossip.”
Gossip was the notable domain for both Count Montesquiou and Prince Polignac, too. They had met in Cannes in 1875, felt an instant attraction to each other (despite the 20-year gap between them), shared sherry, and “read one another their favourite passages of literature.”
Polignac was a closeted homosexual; for two decades, Montesquiou shared his life with a young Argentinean tie salesman. Polignac was “gentle, whimsical and rather hopeless”; Montesquiou, “supercilious, short-tempered and privilege-assuming.” Together, the count and the prince were a perfect fit for the period’s dandy aesthetic, which flouted norms and flogged heteronormative society.
The dandy was a “perfectly dressed, witty, spendthrift member of high society” for whom “thought is of less value than vision.” In England, Beau Brummel was the ideal model. In France, the dandy is “excited to be wittier and better-dressed, and to have better taste, than the rest of humanity.” He is a “decorator of houses and apartments…an arbiter and exemplar of taste. Not of art, of taste.”
In fact, Montesquiou is the subject of not one but two romans a clef. Barnes recounts numerous passages from the gospel of decadence, A Rebours (Against Nature), an 1884 novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Its main character, Des Esseintes, lives in an isolated villa where he indulges his appetite for luxury and excess.
One of those excesses is a bejeweled tortoise similar to one owned by the count. Montesquiou allegedly kept the “bullet that killed Pushkin” in his “cabinet of curiosities.” In Jean Lorrain’s 1901 novel, Monsieur de Phocas, the count is again the focus of sensuous excess.
A Rebours played a key role in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and in Wilde’s second of his three indecency trials. In the novel, Gray is given a copy of Huysmans’ book. At trial, Edward Carson QC, MP, asks Wilde if Huysmans’ novel is a “sodomitical book.” Barnes’ extensive discussion of A Rebours is likely to send readers to both stories.
Wilde is not the only writer with an important place in the period and in the lives of the French trio. Henry James and Marcel Proust are more than passing acquaintances to the fulsome threesome. During that London shopping trip, they bear a letter of introduction from Sargent to James (the latter of whom had seen the painting of Pozzi and would himself later be a subject for the master artist).
Pozzi was a close family friend of the Prousts; Marcel’s younger brother, Robert, was his assistant and performed the first successful prostatectomy at Broca Hospital. The procedure became known as a “proustatectomy.”
All three of the simpatico travelers make appearances in Proust’s A la Recherche du temps Perdu (1913). Polignac shows up twice under his own name; Pozzi is “distantly refracted” as Professor Cottard; Montesquiou is identified as Baron Charlus.
Other writers, painters, and performers flesh out the fin-de-siècle litany, most notably Baudelaire, Maupassant, Flaubert, Whistler, Burne-Jones, and Moreau. Many of these and more — princes, poets, jockeys, politicians, actresses, popes — were featured in a series of cards, “Celebrites Contemporaines,” included in chocolate bars from the grocer Felix Potin. Throughout the book, Barnes makes copious use of these as illustrations, along with other paintings and photographs.
An even more significant and celebrated name drew these individuals together: Alfred Dreyfus. The “overriding political event” of the period “plaited strands of blood-and-soil nativism…revenge against Prussia…and anti-Semitism.” Pozzi and Bernhardt sat together in the front row of Dreyfus’ trial.
At one point, Barnes pellucidly defines biography as “a collection of holes tied together with string.” It is a brilliant image. Some holes are emptier than others. He often cites the biographer’s refrain, “We cannot know,” for facts he must surmise. A “suave study-of-a-life…can only be a public version of a public life, and a partial version of a private life.”
The Man in the Red Coat is replete with more than enough string. It moves effortlessly from the frivolity of that shopping spree into intellectual diversions about the “hectic, violent, narcissistic and neurotic” Belle Epoque. There are engaging anecdotes about bullets and duels, dandyism and decadence, art and literature, politics and religion. Barnes’ version of “factual certainties and confident hypotheses” is number one with a bullet.
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Robert Allen Papinchak is a former university English professor whose reviews and criticism appear in numerous newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and online.