The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes

Each new book by Julian Barnes is different from its predecessor in that it offers an alternative way of configuring reality. Sometimes, as with his masterpiece, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), the new book seems different from anything ever written before. The Man in the Red Coat is no exception to the newness rule. At first, though, it seems to be a bran-tub of gossip and scandal from familiar Barnes territory — the so-called belle époque, meaning Parisian social and artistic life between 1870 and 1914. His favourite writers and artists are all present, among them Proust, Flaubert, Maupassant and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who played a prominent role in Levels of Life, Barnes’s 2013 book about his wife Pat Kavanagh’s death.

The newcomer is Samuel Pozzi. Barnes first encountered him in John Singer Sargent’s portrait, Dr Pozzi at Home, which depicts a regal figure in a floor-length crimson dressing gown, posed against velvet curtains and displaying his strong surgeon’s hands. Seeing the picture prompted Barnes to research his life, and this book is the result.

The Belle Époque Hero

Born in 1846, the son of a humble country pastor, he studied medicine in Pau and Bordeaux, and proved a brilliant student. Thanks to his English stepmother, he grew up bilingual, a great advantage in his career. He later translated one of Darwin’s works into French. After graduating he moved to Paris, and specialised at first in gynaecology, operating on Bernhardt for an ovarian cyst. They also became lovers, a common outcome for Pozzi’s women patients. In 1879, he married the heiress of a railroad magnate, and her money bought them a grand house in Place Vendôme, much frequented by writers, artists and society figures. As a surgeon he revolutionised the treatment of abdominal wounds, useful at a time when duelling was still common.

The unlikeliest duel of the many Barnes mentions was between Proust and a reviewer who had outed him as a closet gay. But as both combatants fired into the air, or missed, Pozzi’s services were not required. He learnt about the use of antiseptics from Joseph Lister in Scotland, and about repairing damaged arteries from Alexis Carrel in New York. This cosmopolitan outlook seems to have been a factor in Barnes’s decision to make him his book’s hero.

Barnes first encountered Pozzi in John Singer Sargent’s portrait: a regal figure in a floor-length crimson gown.

He will not seem a hero to everyone. Barnes has unearthed the private diaries of his daughter, Catherine, which record that when she was 14 her father “heaped blows” upon her and “half strangled” her for daring to denounce his adulteries. This, and his affairs with patients, would be frowned on today. But Barnes has always warned against expecting people in the past to be like us. It would be foolish to suppose that the generations who believed in God were less intelligent than we are, he observed in Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008). By the same token it would be foolish to expect Pozzi to abide by our notions of propriety, so Barnes retains him as his hero, while conceding he was “not without faults”.

The Belle Époque Villain

The book’s other prominent figure, Count Robert de Montesquiou, was a flamboyant dandy aesthete, reportedly devoted to the “aristocratic pleasure of displeasing others”. When he dined with Proust’s parents, his hosts were placed at the bottom of the table, and turning to Proust he remarked: “How ugly it is here.” He personifies much of what Barnes says he dislikes about the belle époque, vast wealth for the wealthy, social power for the aristocracy, and “uncontrolled and intricate snobbery”. Why then, it might be asked, does he write about it at such length? The answer, it gradually emerges, is that his real subject is something different: the impossibility of knowing other people.

Count Robert de Montesquiou, a devotee of the “aristocratic pleasure of displeasing others.”

We “know” about Montesquiou, he points out, only through representations, portrayals and gossip. Whistler’s portrait of him, Arrangement in Black and Gold, tells us only that he looked magnificent. Many believe he was the original for the gay and unlikeable Baron de Charlus in Proust’s vast fictional memoir of the belle époque. Some thought him also the model for Jean des Esseintes, the scandalous hero of Joris-Karl Huysman’s Against Nature, which became the bible of the self-styled “decadents”. But all this, Barnes cautions, is surmise. We cannot penetrate Montesquiou’s, or Pozzi’s, “carapace”. “We cannot know,” he insists, is “one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language”. “Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string” and if we try to fill the holes with speculation, the result will be fiction, that is, make-believe.

“‘We cannot know’ [is] one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language.”

This conclusion, though Barnes does not draw attention to it, goes further than Proust, who grants that the world we see is as different from the world that other people see as “the landscapes on the moon”. But he believes that “by art we are able to get out of ourselves” and “know what another sees of the universe”.

Barnes dismisses that hope — “We cannot know” — and this should surely make him unwilling to ascribe motives to other people, given that they are unknowable. However, that seems not to be the case. French society in the belle époque was riven, as ours is today. With them, the rift was over Alfred Dreyfus, the innocent Jewish officer found guilty of treason and sent to Devil’s Island. Jew-haters and dyed-in-the-wool loyalists were anti-Dreyfus. Pozzi, believing that “chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance”, joined the other camp. The dispute was deadly serious. People got shot.

Our rift, of course, is over Brexit, and in his author’s note Barnes turns his attention to our “deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union”. He blames “the English political elite” who are “unwilling” or “too stupid” to “imagine themselves into the minds of Europeans”. But isn’t imagining oneself into other people’s minds — either the Brexiters into the Europeans’ minds, or himself into the Brexiters’ — precisely what, in his present configuration of reality, Barnes believes impossible? His theory and his practice seem to have come apart, as, in critical times, they tend to do.