The Man in the Red Coat

Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, £18.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

The English novelist Julian Barnes first came across Dr Samuel-Jean Pozzi when he saw John Singer Sargent’s wonderful portrait of him, Dr Pozzi at Home.

Up until then the avowed Francophile and fan of Flaubert had no knowledge of this outrageously colourful and enigmatic character. From the painting’s label he learned merely that Pozzi was a gynaecologist. Later, he read in a magazine article that he was a sex addict who “routinely attempted to seduce his female patients”. This aroused Barnes’s curiosity – as well it might – for here was a scientist of renown whose vocation it was to bring comfort and reduce pain, whose life was devoted to saving and enhancing the lives of others, who apparently abused his position to take advantage of those who sought his help. Who, Barnes pondered, had described him as a “confirmed sex addict”? What evidence was there for this? And what justification was there for the adverb “routinely”?

Barnes’s quest for answers leads him deep into the period known as the Belle Epoque – usually dated from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War – and to Paris, his spiritual home.

It was an age of excess, eccentricity and licentiousness when pretty much anything went. Readers familiar with the catty and indiscreet journal of the brothers Goncourt and the social whirl of Marcel Proust’s peerless roman fleuve A la recherche du temps perdu will instantly recognise the milieu described by Barnes. Here we find Oscar Wilde at his most obnoxiously narcissistic, Sarah Bernhardt picking up and dropping lovers with nymphomaniacal sang froid and, on the other side of the channel, Henry James who immediately recognised that Sargent’s painting of Pozzi was one of the artist’s finest.

In 1885, bearing a letter of introduction to James, Pozzi visited London with his friends Edmond de Polignac, a prince, and Robert de Montesquiou, a count. It was like the Three Musketeers go shopping. Indeed, it would have lasted longer than the few days it did had Pozzi not been summoned urgently back to the French capital. Hanging on the coat tails of this effete triumvirate we enter salons and operating theatres, boudoirs and brothels. This was a world not only described by Proust. Even more pertinent is Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel A Rebours, first published in 1884 and translated as Against Nature.

In it, as Barnes reveals, Huysmans atomised the descent of the French aristocracy into imbecility and depravity. It was a consequence of an excess of privilege, generations of inbreeding and inherited wealth. A thinly disguised roman a clef, A Rebours relates how its principal character, Des Esseintes, who was patently based on de Montesquiou, owned a pet tortoise whose shell was painted gold and studded with precious stones. In the novel, the poor beast dies because of “the dazzling luxury imposed upon it”.

Whether de Montesquiou did own such an unfortunate creature is unclear. What is, however, is that Huysmans took the tadpole of truth and used it to symbolise a society which had gone wantonly awry. With very little of substance to occupy its members’ hours, the need to stay amused was paramount. The circle in which the three dandies at the heart of Barnes’ book moved was small and secrets impossible to protect. It was therefore easy to upset someone, which in many cases led to duels, often on the silliest of pretexts. On one occasion, for example, two protagonists fought a near-fatal duel about exactly how thin Bernhardt had been when she played Hamlet. This is what happens when you don’t have enough to do.

Circumstances such as this made rich pickings for gossips and troublemakers like the egregious hack Jean Lorrain, perhaps the most vile person to inhabit Barnes’s pages.

Like one of Balzac’s more grotesque creations, Lorrain – who, curiously, remained throughout his a life on good terms with Dr Pozzi – was often wounded, verbally as well as physically, but the vicious scuttlebutt always managed, like scum, to rise to the surface. Even when grievously ill, he remained a virulent anti-semite, screaming: “Maman, there are Jews in my bed.” A homosexual who dabbled in satanism, he once said: “What is a vice? Merely a taste you don’t share.” Wilde called him a poseur while Lorrain deemed Wilde a faker. Each deserved the other.

“Did Lorrain really pimp for Pozzi?” asks Barnes. “Did Pozzi need anyone to pimp for him?” Who knows and who really cares? By all accounts Pozzi was the kind of man who made women unloosen their stays. Nor, I would guess to judge from the poses he struck, was he any less in love with himself. It was something he surely shared with de Montesquiou and de Polignac.

In contrast to his friends, though, Pozzi was an outsider and a commoner. He married well, and into money, but not long after the nuptials he was protesting that his wife preferred her mother to him. This gave him a ticket to roam which he did at will. Did he “routinely” seduce women on whom he had earlier operated? The verdict is not proven. Barnes names six or seven women with whom he was involved but speculates that there may have been several hundred more.

What differentiates Pozzi from his two brothers-in-arms is that he was a bonafide scientist whose openness to innovation led to a hospital being named in his honour after his death. In 1876, he visited Britain for the first time, to attend the British Medical Association conference in Edinburgh. There he met Joseph Lister and became an advocate and practitioner of “the Scottish rite”, i.e. hygiene and steralisation.

Sargent’s portrait of him is the equivalent of Barnes’s prose; vivid, elegant, seductive, a joy to behold. Who, we want to know, is this man in the red coat? Look at his thin hands, the fingers tapered like the tines of a fork. What can they be but surgical instruments? Round the coat is a cord on which dangles, as Barnes writes, “a pair of feathery, furry tassels, one on top of the other...just below groin level, like a scarlet bull’s pizzle”. Is Sargent being sexually suggestive? Is he saying the man garbed in red – the colour of sin – is not all he seems? That there is more to him than meets the eye?

Barnes is on Pozzi’s side and repeats one of his maxims – “Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance.” – in his afterword. It is, adds Barnes, a reminder to insular English politicians that incuriousness about Europe is unedifying and lazy, though, as Brexit looms ever nearer, he insists he is no pessimist. Pozzi has taught him that there is much to be gained from the study of France and Europe and the Belle Epoque. Boris Johnson et al please note.