A gorgeous romp through the French Belle Epoque.
Award winning novelist Julian Barnes starts his new work of non-fiction with three men on a shopping trip in London. The year is 1885. The three men are all French - Prince de Polignac, Count de Montesquiou-Fezensac and famed gynaecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi. When Barnes discovered the sumptuous John Singer Sargent portrait of Pozzi, Dr. Pozzi at Home, he was inspired to trace the doctor and his milieu.
For the most part, The Man in the Red Coast is a dizzying, kaleidoscopic ride through the French Belle Epoque. It's an age of outsized egos, quick tempers, frequent bitchiness, aristocratic entitlement and easy wealth. Friendships play out like complex chessboard manoeuvres, and when associations sour and allies turn, aggrieved parties slander each other through the press. All the big names of the age walk regularly through these pages – Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Zola, Guy De Maupassant, Colette. Plus lesser known characters, such as the overcooked dandy Jean Lorrain and gossip mongers, the Goncourt brothers.
Of the three men introduced on the 1885 shopping trip, it is Montesquiou and Pozzi who get all the attention. (Prince de Polignac makes only minor appearances. He marries a lesbian heiress, and being homosexual himself, lives pretty much happily ever after.) Dilettante and aesthete Montesquiou rubs shoulders with the great and rich of the age, and will appear as a character in many fictional works, most notably in Joris-Karl Huysmans' À rebours and Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. He's a pretty unsavoury character – vain, insecure, frivolous and mean. In the one endeavour where he tried to make himself useful – writing – he failed. Not many people read Montesquiou in his day, and less do now.
The bright light of the book, surrounded as he is by so much decadence and sickly self-indulgence, is the gynaecologist Samuel Pozzi. He was progressive in his thinking, cultured, well educated, a collector of beautiful things, but also a useful person. He worked at the forefront of medical science, was instrumental in spearheading new procedures and took great interest in the personal well being – the comfort and ease – of his patients. By most accounts, an all round nice guy. (His predilection for seducing patients, however, would get him struck off the medical register if he were practicing today.)
An education in the Belle Epoque and a lively entertainment (Barnes obviously loves the period and relishes its eccentric cast of egomaniacs), The Man in the Red Coat is a tonic and a delight.
The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes. Jonathan Cape. $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books