Julian Barnes has done it again. Hard to say exactly what, though. It is perhaps easier to define it in the negative, what this book is not. You can start by ticking the boxes. The Man in the Red Coat is not a novel. It is not a biography. It is not art or cultural criticism. It is not a political analysis on Brexit and its possible cultural impact. In all probability, it is a bit of all of these.
The events are too good to be true. You have a lingering feeling that it must have been invented. It is a groundbreaking, genre-bending work of non-fiction which has the fascination of fiction and, with its level of time- and place-specific detail, it reads like a novel. Till the very end, I could not be sure if a man such as Samuel Jean de Pozzi — the titular man in the red coat — existed. If he had not, then Barnes would have invented him. Here, the author begins with breaking the frame and taking Pozzi out of a painting. The result is a book which everybody will like without being able to fully explain why, apart from the fact that it is compelling and well-written.
In keeping with Barnes’s style, the reader can expect any surprise. This time, the book opens with a precisely stated fact: “In June 1885, three Frenchmen arrived in London.” But then the author offers a variety of possibilities: “we might begin with —.” One such possibility is a coat: “Or we might begin, prosaically, with the coat.” The coat invites to be looked at, but there is a man inside it.
There is a rather extraordinary painting by John Singer Sargent titled ‘Dr Pozzi at Home’, showing a remarkable man dressed in a long coat and, before anything else, it is the colour which catches the eye. It is more than red, flaming scarlet. The description of the painting is spellbinding: “Its subject — the commoner with the Italian name — is 35, handsome, bearded, gazing confidently over our left shoulder ... after the picture’s first impact, when we might well think ‘it’s all about the coat’, we realise that it isn’t. It is more about the hands. The left hand is on the hip; the right hand is on the chest. The fingers are the most expressive part of the portrait.” These fingers — and not the face — are visible against the red coat on the cover of Barnes’s book.
Julian Barnes’s latest book is a groundbreaking, genre-bending biography which has the fascination of fiction and which reads like a novel
The subject of the painting is one of the three travellers from Paris to London and soon the narrative widens to include more details about the other travellers, then again their circle of friends and finally, the very times they are living in. This is the ‘Belle Epoque’, a golden period of peace and prosperity, “the locus classicus of peace and pleasure, glamour with more than a brush of decadence, a last flowering of the arts, and last flowering of a settled high society before, belatedly, this soft fantasy was blown away by the metallic, unfoolable, 20th century...”
The widening circle brings into focus extraordinary people who are seen to symbolise the age. The travellers to London carry an introductory letter addressed to novelist Henry James, but the author then moves from Oscar Wilde to Marcel Proust — with Wilde fleeing his tormentors to find vicarious pleasures in Paris before getting arrested in England and Proust is a young man about town who will draw his memorable characters from the charmed circle he moves in. Proust’s great masterpiece seems to be hovering in the air right next to the closing pages of this book.
The man in the red coat does many other things besides wearing the red coat. He turns out to be a great doctor, a surgeon and gynaecologist who designs a hospital with infection control and writes a textbook on his subject which remains the standard for his chosen field of specialisation. This, however, does not stop him from satisfying his sexual appetite. A number of his intimate relationships are speculated upon. But since this is not a novel but a biography, the study of the characters is incomplete.
“We cannot know,” says the writer and then goes on to explain, “If used sparingly, this is one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language. It reminds us that the suave study-of-a-life we are reading, for all its detail, length and footnotes, for all its factual certainties and confident hypotheses, can only be a public version of a public life, and a partial version of a private life.”
Barnes goes on to say, “biography is a collection of holes tied together with string, and nowhere more so than with the sexual and amatory life.” This does not prevent the author from presenting a vivid picture of the voracious sexual appetite of the period, especially exemplified with the people who are at the centre of the stage here in the vivid details of the extraordinary book, which makes you relish these details.
Barnes is well-suited to take up this strange, but not unattractive, subject as his theme. One of the most original as well as inventive British writers of the day, his early career is marked by remarkable books such as The Porcupine and Flaubert’s Parrot, each a tour de force in itself. More recent are The Sense of an Ending, The Noise of Time and The Only Story — some of the most remarkable novels to have come out of not-so-merry England. Even in such a fruitful career, this new book is clearly surprising. What made the author choose such a subject, and what does he mean to say?
Is there a hidden meaning, a tale within a tale, a subtext? He drops a hint in the ‘Author’s Note’ right at the end that he was “writing this book during the last year or so before Britain’s deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union.” But rather than rave or rant about it, or weigh the book down by his analysis, Barnes declares that he “declines to be pessimistic.” He makes the reason clear: “Time spent in the distant, decadent, hectic, violent, narcissistic and neurotic Belle Epoque has left me cheerful.” The cheerfulness is infectious and works its way through the book.
The central character never ceases to be amazing. We learn that Pozzi was not merely a “society doctor”, but wrote a standard textbook on gynaecology and remodelled public hospitals before meeting his end through a bullet — which may have been the one mentioned at the beginning of the book. The versatile man is summed up right at the end as somebody who greeted each new day with enthusiasm and curiosity, filling his life with “medicine, art, books, travel, society, politics and as much sex as possible (though all we cannot know).” Accepting his faults, Barnes puts him forward as “a kind of hero.” One may not be sure of that, but it is a life that fills this readable and satisfying book as much as Pozzi himself fits the red coat in which he stands now, immortalised twice over.
The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer who teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi
The Man in the Red Coat
By Julian Barnes
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 5th, 2020