The gentleman, in his stand-offish way, could not be more alluring. Clad in a white ruffled shirt and a red ankle-length dressing gown (one commentator called it “a scarlet toga”), he’s both languid and alert; withdrawn, yet quietly on offer.
The effect is instantly seductive.
It also elicits deep curiosity about the subject of John Singer Sargent’s 1881 masterpiece, “Dr. Pozzi at Home.” Julian Barnes’s new book, “The Man in the Red Coat,” delivers some illuminating answers as it blends elements of biography with a survey of the sexually fraught and surprisingly violent Parisian world that Dr. Samuel Pozzi inhabited.
In his first encounter with the painting, Barnes was drawn by the “swagger” of its subject’s pose. “The wall label told me that he was a gynaecologist. … Then I saw in an art magazine that he was ‘not only the father of French gynaecology but also a confirmed sex addict who routinely attempted to seduce his female patients.’ I was intrigued by such an apparent paradox: the doctor who helps women but also exploits them.”
“The Man in the Red Coat” throws that characterization into doubt, even as it confirms that Pozzi turned heads in both heterosexual and homosexual circles. (One admirer called him “disgustingly handsome,” and a photograph of Pozzi in his prime bears this out.)
Barnes also corrects the impression we have of France’s Belle Époque as an age of “peace and pleasure, glamour with more than a brush of decadence.” Cautioning us that “such shiny brand names are always coined retrospectively,” he reveals that for those who actually lived through it, late-19th-century France was an age of familiar-sounding “fake news” and “hysterical national anxiety, filled with political instability, crises and scandals.”
Barnes’s research eventually leads him to sees Pozzi as “a sane man in a demented age.” But how best to get at his essence more than a century after his death?
On the book’s first page, Barnes ponders possible ways. The first is a London shopping trip Pozzi took in 1885, accompanied by two French aristocrats with “Hellenic tendencies” (i.e. gay). Another option is to “begin with a bullet, and the gun which fired it … But which gun, and which bullet? There were so many of them around at the time.”
Or is the Sargent portrait the best place to start?
Barnes winds up taking a circular approach, initially placing oddball personalities and watershed events of the era in the foreground. Some names — Sarah Bernhardt, Henry James, Marcel Proust (whose parents had a Pozzi connection) — are familiar. Forgotten figures include critic Jean Lorrain who dubbed himself “the Ambassador from Sodom.”
After creating some teasing uncertainty as to what, precisely, this book is about, Barnes brings the focus back to Pozzi.
“[H]ow,” he asks, “did a Paris surgeon, even a successful one, afford the company of a Prince and a Count, plus all the related shopping?”
Answer: Pozzi’s wife Thérèse brought a fortune to their marriage.
Where did Pozzi stand on marital fidelity in a society where “the requirements of money, class, family and sex” often collided?
Pozzi, it seems, was constant in his infidelity. In Venice in 1899, he and his Jewish mistress were joined in an extramarital union “officially blessed by an elderly Armenian monk.” But Pozzi seems not have been the indiscriminate “sex addict” some believed him to be.
Instead, much of his passion went into his career. He fought to make French medical facilities more hospitable to patients and more sanitary. He was internationally recognized as a medical innovator whose 1890 treatise on gynecology remained a standard text into 1930s. He was also an expert on treating gunshot wounds — and the number of gunshot wounds cited in the book is mind-boggling.
“Between 1895 and 1905,” Barnes writes, “there were at least 150 duels in Paris. … If there was any sense in the business, it was perhaps this: that a duel was both quicker and cheaper than a lawsuit for libel or slander.”
The most divisive issue of the day was the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish army captain was falsely accused of passing French military secrets to the Germans and imprisoned after a trial that sparked virulent anti-Semitism among some sectors of the French population. Pozzi was at the trial, in part, because he was Dreyfus’s doctor. (“Pozzi,” Barnes quips more than once, “was everywhere.”) Barnes’s allusions to these historical events sometimes assume a knowledge of the players and “-isms” of the period that not every reader will have. Still, his take on Pozzi’s tumultuous times hits home.
The most captivating moments in the book come when Barnes addresses the ways that we view figures from the past.
“What is it about the present that makes it so eager to judge the past?” he asks. “There is always a neuroticism to the present, which believes itself superior to the past but can’t quite get over a nagging anxiety that it might not be.”
He’s also shrewd on how a biography — anyone’s biography — “can only be a public version of a public life, and a partial version of a private life.” The climax of the book is a six-page litany of “Things We Cannot Know” about Pozzi and his world. “All these matters would, of course, be solved in a novel,” writes the Man Booker Prize-winning author of “The Sense of an Ending” and “Flaubert’s Parrot.”
In the end, “The Man in a Red Coat” pinpoints the paradox of Pozzi’s life even if it can’t retrieve all his secrets. “Pozzi was a highly intelligent, swiftly decisive, scientific rationalist — which meant that life was comprehensible, and the best course of action obvious to him, in all areas except those of love and marriage and parenthood.” (Pozzi’s strained relationship with his daughter Catherine fills the pages of her diary.)
Final note: This book is a beautiful art object in itself, handsomely designed, with quality reproductions of the paintings that Barnes discusses.
THE MAN IN THE RED COAT
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 272 pp., $26.95
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.