Backstories Biographical Nonfiction Discussion of writing style review of biography

Looking at portraits looking back at us – The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes

This is a truly intriguing biography: a mystery brilliantly unravelled by a literary detective. It’s 288 pages long with no chapters or divisions, and it’s written in a loose, conversational style, as if Barnes had directly recorded his thoughts while discovering the life of the Man in the Red Coat, Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi, gynaecologist.

The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes (Biography, French History, Biographical Historical Fiction; Publisher: ‎Random House Canada; Feb. 18, 2020; hardcover; 288 pages)

Barnes’ writing style makes the narrative feel intimate and direct, and makes it easy to understand. He does not put passages written by other writers in quotation marks, but rather sets the quotes in standalone paragraphs, and there are no footnotes or references to complicate the text.

Sometimes he breaks from his description to list ideas (for instance “How to be a guest”, and “Things we cannot know”), or he segues into how and why he became interested in Pozzi’s life. Sometimes he changes topic completely from one paragraph to the next, delving into a political event or someone’s diary, and then, roundabout, comes back to Pozzi.

It’s the first biography I’ve read where the author uses “I” so many times. For a writer who is famously private, this was revealing, and I found it fascinating to discover these little gems.

France during La Belle Époque

Yes, the book is about the French Dr. Pozzi, and his work as a surgeon and gynaecologist, his professional career, his amazing innovations and achievements in medicine. (Barnes uses many terms ending in –otomy… I queasily decided not to look those up.) But it is also about his associates, peers, friends and family.

It starts with Pozzi’s visit to London, England, in June 1885, with two friends, and ends without much ado with his death on 13 June 1918. It is about his celebrity, because he was a very famous person, in France and in the Western world.

He wasn’t famous for being famous, as with some celebrities today – he was famous for his achievements in medicine, and because he was, as one admirer put it, “disgustingly handsome”.

Was he handsome? He certainly was, judging by the many paintings and photos of him. The beard, by the way, was de rigueur for French doctors in those days.

A lovely book about a lovely man

A great deal of the contents of the book is in fact about the people around Pozzi, rather than just him. He seems to pop up at just about any noteworthy occasion of the time. His peers, friends and enemies were the Who’s Who of the Belle Époque. La Belle Époque, meaning “Beautiful Epoch”, period of French and European history, lasted from about 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

These other famous people were obsessed with beauty and style, and the book itself is also a thing of beauty – something rare these days.

It is the best published and printed book that I’ve held in my hands for literally years. It feels sturdy and luxurious, the paper is creamy, smooth and glossy, the text is set in classical, pleasing-to-the-eye Adobe Garamond, and there are high-resolution photos and paintings of just about all the famous people who are mentioned. The excellent quality of the printing (thank you, Random House and Mohn Media) was required so that all those illustrations could be properly seen and appreciated.

In particular, one can appreciate the full colour plate of the portrait of Dr. Pozzi, by John Singer Sargent, that got Julian Barnes interested in the good doctor. It all started with Sargent’s 1881 painting titled “Dr. Pozzi at Home”.

Believe me, Sargent’s portrait of him is photorealistic: the slender, gleaming fingers, the dark, glowing eyes, the thick, glossy black hair, the straight, elegant nose, the full lips and slight smile…that’s how he looked. No wonder his patients fell in love with him. Compare the painting to later photographs of Pozzi and you can see that Sargent perfectly captured his likeness. I can see why this painting caught Barnes’ attention and led him to look into the life of Dr. Pozzi.

Belle Époch celebrities in your chocolate bar

Oddly, the neat, rectangular, black-and-white photos of the people who are mentioned in the book, with the name “Collection Félix Potin” at the top, and the name of the famous person at the bottom, are actually the equivalent of modern collectible cigarette cards or video gaming trading cards. Between 1898 and 1922 the grocers Félix Potin – yes, grocers – put these cards in their chocolate bars. They produced three series of contemporary celebrity portraits, with about 500 cards in each series. Amongst those cards of artists, actors, politicians, doctors, generals, etc., were two of Dr. Pozzi – and Barnes has both these cards.

The “Félix Potin” cards of some of the people featured in “The Man in the Red Coat” – One of the photos of Dr. Pozzi is on the left-hand page, top row, left. (The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes, front end-sheet)

The card collection is just one source for Barnes’ story: since he is fluent in French and English, he has both studied the histories of Pozzi’s contemporaries, and read, in the original French, what they wrote. He weaves together all sorts of clues, connections and references to depict Pozzi’s life. Sometimes he does not translate a phrase or a title, but I could figure it out with my smattering of French vocabulary.

His writing style in this book is informal, and his approach is sometimes speculative. He begins with an intriguing introduction about how one could tell this story, and spins out the tale engagingly until his subject, Pozzi, dies in the last few pages (after most of his contemporaries have also died). Sometimes Barnes uses a phrase or incomplete sentence, or just swings the argument around to another focus point. As a result, it is never boring.

I never thought I could find people who I’ve only seen mentioned in history books so entertaining, people like writer Oscar Wilde, (the unpronounceable) Count Robert Montesquiou-Fézensac, philosopher Marcel Proust and actress Sarah Bernhardt.

They were scandalous, very rich, and famous. Some were gay (when being gay was still illegal), and some were mad, some brilliant. They were Aesthetes, they fought duels, or caused duels, insulted each other in print, and generally did whatever the heck they wanted with whoever they wanted – in style. And all this played out against the backdrop of the Dreyfus Affair, which lasted from 1894 until its resolution in 1906; the trial for homosexuality of Oscar Wilde from 1895 to 1897, and anarchists raising hell and assassinating people during La Belle Époque. (Which was not, looking back, quite so beautiful.) Today’s celebrity scandals have nothing on this lot.

“An art of pleasing that no one could match”

Dr. Pozzi had an outwardly perfect society marriage, but in 1909, after 30 years in the public eye, his wife, Thérèse, asked him for a separation (not divorce – she was Catholic), since, for decades, he had had a public, serious relationship with a married woman, Emma Sedelmeyer Fischoff, also spelled Fischhof (1862 – 1927). Barnes does not specify what Mr. Fischoff thought of this. Nor does he have a portrait of “Madame F.” in the book. He does quote extracts from the diaries of Pozzi’s daughter, Catherine, who comes across as neurotic, depressed, unremarkable, obsessed with her father, and also extremely disapproving of his conduct.

But through all of this drama, Pozzi remained, by all accounts, a charming, optimistic, intelligent, and immensely likeable man, with very good taste, and excellent skills with the scalpel. Even his enemies had to admit that. Barnes quotes Robert de Montesquiou, writing about Pozzi, who was his friend, after Pozzi’s death:

“I have never met a man as seductive as Pozzi. I never saw him being anything other than his smiling, affable, incomparable self…For someone as devoted as I am to the aristocratic pleasure of displeasing others, it was a lesson to witness the unfailing smile of a man who made such good use of it, and who would take it to the grave with him. Pozzi had an art of pleasing that no one could match.”

The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes, p. 87

How and why Pozzi died is one of the most poignant and disturbing parts of the book – you’ll have to read it yourself.

Pozzi had one characteristic that was key to his success in life – he wasn’t chauvinistic.

Barnes quotes Dr. Pozzi’s maxim in the Author’s Note, where he explains why he thinks of Dr. Pozzi as a hero, and someone who cheers him up when he feels pessimistic:

“Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance.”

The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes, p. 267

Pozzi was openminded, unprejudiced (he worked with the poor, syphilis patients, destitute women, and deranged patients – anyone who needed help – unlike other society doctors) and did many ground-breaking things to advance women’s health when most doctors thought women were just mindless, child-bearing creatures, not worthy of advanced medical procedures; “Pozzi was a public figure, a senator, a village mayor, a campaigner with a powerful mind and powerful opinions which many disputed. He was a scientific atheist at a time when the church was fighting hard against the state…” (p. 89)

How to look at one’s subject

In the book, Barnes also makes some interesting comments about writing, and what it is like to be an author, particularly when writing biographies of famous people. An example is his inclusion of Jean Lorrain (who was a drug addict and actually drank ether and, as a result, died a horrible, explosive death):

“He is someone you half want to keep out of your book, for fear he might take over too much of it. He was extravagant, fearless, contemptible, malicious, talented and envious, a friend who couldn’t help betraying you, and an enemy who would never forget.”

The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes, p. 73

Barnes points out that someone looking at the life of Pozzi, a man from the late 19th century, early 20th century, or anyone from a previous age, should be cautious: what we think the story is, may not be the story at all. This is particularly true when we rely on our interpretations of paintings or early photographs. I often came up against this conundrum when restoring the photos I used for my book about my family’s history, and Barnes puts into words the concern that I have felt all along.

It’s a long extract – but it is a crucial part of the book – do read all of it:

“…it is hard for us not to see with modern eyes, and to read modern emotions into those who gaze out at us. Sitters rarely smile in early photographs, because having your picture taken was a serious (often once-in-a-lifetime) event, but also because of the long exposure required.
When we look at a portrait – of an Elizabethan child, a Georgian worthy, a Victorian matron – what we are doing in part is trying to bring them back to life, to have an ocular conversation with them, as we look at them looking back at us.
And in this exchange we may mistakenly assume that their feelings are versions of our feelings – or what our feelings might be if we were in their place; also, that they are, somehow, as interested in us as we are in them.
[…] Sometimes it boils down to this: Who’s in charge? And are they doing what they think they’re doing? Here is [Oscar] Wilde’s artist Basil Hallward:

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on coloured canvas, reveals himself.”

The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes, pp. 209 – 210

That says a lot about Sargent’s portrait of Pozzi, but also a lot about Barnes’ portrait of Pozzi. What he says about Pozzi, he also reveals about himself: like Pozzi, Barnes, the man and the author, is, I think, “…rational, scientific, progressive, international and constantly inquisitive”, and “thankfully, not without faults”. At least that’s what I think.

But, in the same way as Barnes and other biographers look at the portraits of their subjects, I look at the photo of Julian Barnes and assume that his feelings are my feelings, and his ideas agree with my ideas – which is probably not so.

As Barnes says in The Man in the Red Coat, the list of things we cannot know about our subject is long and beyond our control.

More useful background reading

Interview with Julian Barnes in Interview Magazine:

Surprisingly revealing interview with Julian Barnes by a Dutch journalist (ask Google to translate if you don’t understand Dutch):

A website dedicated to Dr. Pozzi, with accessible archives:

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