Book review: The Man In The Red Coat by Julian Barnes

Book review: The Man In The Red Coat by Julian Barnes

reviewed by Frances Churchward.

The title of this book is the title of a painting by John Singer Sargent, painted in 1881, of Samuel Pozzi.  This is a non-fiction history book set during the time of “La Belle Epoque” and draws a very colourful, and not necessarily flattering, picture of many of the characters who frequented Paris during that time, one of whom was Oscar Wilde. The central character in the book is Pozzi who was a pioneering surgeon and who has been referred to as “The father of French gynaecology”.

The book largely follows the life and career of Professeur Pozzi and his many associates which included the actress, Sarah Bernhardt with whom he apparently had a long-standing affair. Pozzi, a commoner, appears to be a well liked and highly respected liberal thinker who marries a wealthy woman and gains entry to the world of the very rich and often decadent. Pozzi’s extra-marital affairs are not limited to Sarah Bernhardt and there appear to have been several other women, one of which, Emma Fischoff, lasted over twenty years.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book as I would not usually choose to read a history book especially one about La Belle Epoque in which, up to now, I have had no interest. However, Barnes witty style of prose gives considerable insight into the lives of the characters about whom he documents. The text is peppered with small anecdotes which amuse yet, at the same time, grate somewhat; for example, at a time when surgeons are being advised of the necessity to cleanse their hands before conducting surgery, one eminent person declares that it is unnecessary as a gentleman’s hands are always clean. Barnes also gives an account about how De Gaulle’s strong anti-British feelings may have arisen which, whilst being largely supposition, does give one pause for thought.

This is history retold in a thoroughly readable manner and provides a window on the world of life in Paris and beyond at the time. As much of the content relates to events and persons from the not too distant past, there are interesting and thought-provoking comments made by Barnes, some of which relate to the current Brexit situation and which provide yet another reason for reading the book.

Out now, published by Jonathan Cape. Available from good bookshops, including October Books.