An exciting, surprising and informative look at an age that is historically famous but also under the radar.
The Belle Époque—the classier, artier French cousin to the Gilded Age—comes to vibrant, sexy life in Julian Barnes’ new biography The Man in the Red Coat. Though his stated task is to tell the story of the pioneering Samuel-Jean Pozzi, whose appearance in a famous John Singer Sargent painting both spurred Barnes’ interest in his subject and gave his book its title, Barnes takes on myriad tasks with his new work. He provides great insight into late-18th and early 19th century medicine (particularly gynecology, Pozzi’s chosen field), he explores the fraught and decadent web of European writers and artists of the time period, he maps the relationship between the upper crust and the striving bourgeois and, of course, he does in fact do justice to Dr. Pozzi’s interesting life.
The Man Booker Prize-winning Barnes is an excellent writer of both fiction and nonfiction and his creative mind comes to his aid in telling Pozzi’s tale. Barnes himself states that, “Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string, and nowhere more so than with the sexual and amatory life,” and this is very relevant in Pozzi’s case, as his life is as filled with sexual exploits as it is with mystery. Barnes goes into great detail in discussing both Pozzi’s professional pursuits as well as his personal entanglements, and in this case the two are intertwined. Given Pozzi’s role as a pioneering gynecologist, these blurred boundaries are clearly problematic, though Barnes asks for the reader to consider Pozzi as a product of his times.
And the times are where Barnes really hits his stride. Even the way he starts the book gives a fairy-tale tinge to it all: “In June 1885, three Frenchmen arrived in London. One was a Prince, one was a Count, and the third was a commoner with an Italian surname. The Count subsequently described their purpose as ‘intellectual and decorative shopping.’” The commoner with the Italian surname is, of course, Pozzi, and his companions were Prince de Polignac and Count de Montesquiou-Fezensac, wealthy French homosexuals who contribute to one of the books most satisfying subplots: queer life during the Belle Époque. Though Pozzi himself wasn’t a homosexual, it at times seems like all of his friends were, and it adds to the doctor’s legend and charm for him to be as socially forward-thinking as he was scientifically.
Barnes includes art and photography to show off the world around Pozzi, and this leads to some genuinely intriguing insights. Some of these are about surgery and gynecology; apparently doctors of this time period were rather knife-happy, particularly when it came to female patients, and Pozzi was more considered in his treatment. Moreover, he made a number of innovations having to do with patient comfort, safety and sensitivity. Barnes portrayal of Pozzi paints him as a truly empathetic and sensitive person, which is what not only enabled him to be such a groundbreaking doctor but also enabled him to work himself into the good graces of a number of famous luminaries. Colette appears within Barnes’ story, as do Guy de Maupassant, Sarah Bernhardt, the Princess of Monaco and other famous folks.
Regardless of authorial intent, the way in which the book revels in both Pozzi’s sexual acumen and scientific trailblazing can be a bit awkward. In any age, a doctor sexually dallying with his patients feels at best exploitative. There’s also the subtle suggestion that Pozzi’s attractiveness and sexual skill somehow alleviates some of these concerns, which is simply not how sexual malfeasance works. However, outside of this uncomfortable subtext, The Man in the Red Coat is an exciting, surprising and informative look at an age that is historically famous but also under the radar when compared to its geographic and temporal neighbors. At times, the book itself feels like art come to life, which in a way it is.