December 2020 Open Book Group – The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes

I enjoyed moderating The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes.

Julian Barnes saw John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Dr Pozzi at Home in 2015. He was struck first by the decadent crimson dressing-gown and then by the life of its occupant Dr Pozzi. Barnes confesses he knew nothing about Pozzi despite his avid interest in the period in France, occupied by Pozzi and his social set, known as the Belle Epoque. A period which, to quote Barnes, was “The phrase describing that time of peace between the catastrophic French defeat of 1870 to 71 and the catastrophic French victory of 1914 to 18 ( it ) didn’t come into the language until 1940 to 41, after another French defeat.”  In The Man in the Red Coat he satisfies his curiosity with an intensively researched biography of Pozzi and his companions.

The book opens with Count Montesquiou, a closeted homosexual, writer, and aesthete whose taste and eccentricities were famous throughout Paris, Prince Edmond de Polignac, a quiet, dreamy aristocrat and aspiring composer and Samuel Pozzi, a doctor born to a Protestant provincial family They are visiting London for some “intellectual and decorative shopping”. We quickly feel we are mixing with a new social elite. We wonder how Pozzi finds himself in the company of the Prince and the Count clearly from a different social stratum.

We learn that Pozzi, has been launched as a society doctor in Paris after he marries the provincial, but wealthy Thérèse Loth-Cazalis. Pozzi’s marriage was a failure but, as she was a Catholic, they resigned themselves to cohabitation without divorce. The French viewed marriage as a business deal i.e. Pozzi got money, Thérèse got increased social status by moving to Paris. Likewise, in later life, a broke homosexual Prince Polignac married Winnarretta Singer heiress to US singer sewing machine family.

After children had been procreated affairs within marriage were perfectly acceptable. The hurt to the wife and children, as his daughter Catherine Pozzi wrote about in her diary, were ignored. Pozzi was reputed to have had an affair with Sara Bernhardt, among many others. He was described by Alice, Princesse de Monaco as “disgustingly handsome”.

Barnes explores this French attitude to marriage to the English, who married for love and were expected to stay faithful for life. “Zut alors” declared these Parisians. How can you be so naive to expect that to happen, especially when they considered English women to be so ugly compared to their French counterparts?

Barnes contrasts the heterosexual tension between marriage and love against the secret life of known homosexuals of the era. The Count had various faithful male secretaries. He is supposedly the model for Marcel Proust’s Baron de Charlus. He was also immortalized as Jean des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebors. The novel is an exploration of sexuality, dandyism, the defence of beauty and decadence, pillars of the period’s aesthetic movement. The dandies, led by the Count, obsessively collected objet d’arte in their pursuit of beauty. They held lavish parties involving a lot of dressing up, after which they staged photos of themselves in the elaborate costumes. Baudelaire, Jean Lorrain, Oscar Wilde, Proust and Sara Bernhardt moved freely in this circle.

Pozzi’s professional life was fascinating especially compared to the more dilettanti artistic lives of his social set. He was a politician and senator as well as a precociously talented surgeon. As surgical director of a public city hospital, he brought innovations in antiseptics and anaesthesia to Paris and invited artist friends to decorate the walls of the wards with murals. He transformed the practice of gynaecology, setting the first guidelines to a woman’s comfort during an examination, and writing a definitive two-volume treatise that established the specialism in its own right.

Instead of the usual standard third party voice, Barnes frequently reverts to the first-person perspective. He talks directly to the reader about the challenges of writing a biography.

We all agreed it was a beautifully produced book. Dr Pozzi at Home graces the cover while portraits and photos of the main protagonists are scattered on throughout its pages. We see the faces of an array of minor players on “cigarette cards” found in chocolate bars sold during the period. Some members wondered how, in the modern era, the publisher could justify such an expensive production. However, we are talking Julian Barnes so no doubt they anticipated his name alone would guarantee sales.

That is where the agreement ended. There were 10 members in the Zoom meeting 70% positively disliked the book, while 30% (including the moderator) loved it.

In the blue corner

  • Barnes claims to be writing about the Belle Epoque but only covers 1% of the population. The remaining 99% have no voice

 

  • Disliked all the members of the social set. Most were particularly dissolute spending their time producing little or nothing of note. Members had minimal interest in finding out more about them. Unable to engage with the characters several did not finish the book.

 

  • Did not enjoy Barnes style. Found the book “chaotic” with Barnes’ ruminations in the first person distracting the reader One member, confounded by his opening section, initially thought it was a novel.

 

  • Much preferred The Noise of Time (OBG Dec 2017). Barnes’ biography of Shostakovich where he stuck to his subject matter and didn’t wander off piste.

 

In the red corner

  • Appreciate it was about a rarefied group, but it was a group which influenced Proust and Wilde. Their writing has stood the test of time. The great unwashed rarely have a voice in histories until they revolt.

 

  • Enjoyed Barnes ruminating on the nature of biography while he is attempting to write one. He pontificates on the veracity of the medium. We are reading Barnes’ interpretation of historical sources which in themselves are not always reliable e.g. the Goncourt brothers gossip mags of the period.  He reminds us we can never truly know or understand his subjects’ motivations (particularly their sex lives which Barnes spends considerable time debating) no matter how intensive the research. Biographies may appear as nonfiction but in part they are fictitious.

 

  • Enjoyed Barnes challenging and reminding us that we view portraits through our modern eyes, not with the artist’s eyes. Barnes had wanted to find out about Pozzi because of his portrait, but to Sergeant Pozzi was almost irrelevant. To him the portrait was all about the red coat. Likewise, Barnes notes his viewing of Ingres’ painting of Bertin. For several decades he thought it was of a reprehensible grumpy banker. It turns out nothing could be further from the truth. Barnes argued contemporaries of M. Bertin would have looked at his portrait and seen ” “warm, wry, and engaging” qualities……not previously visible to me”

 

  • Noted that the opening pages, with Barnes offering various options on how he could start the book, was a precursor to his argument that there is not one way to view a life.

We came back together over our appreciation of Dr Pozzi. A remarkable man, and a leader in his profession.

We found Barnes’ afterword that Britain’s Brexit frequently brought to his mind Pozzi’s maxim “Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance” spot on. We also agreed with his regret that the teaching of foreign languages in schools is no longer a priority. We reminisced how “in our day” we were mostly required to learn two languages. Now, with the “everyone speaks English“, together with the “everyone needs to learn to code” curricula have changed. Without the discipline to learn a foreign language our understanding of different cultures is diminished so further increasing Anglo-centric isolation.

The Man in the Red Coat did promote a lively book group discussion but should probably be only recommended to Julian Barnes tragics.

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