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.