From the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending—a rich, witty, revelatory tour of Belle Époque Paris, via the remarkable life story of the pioneering surgeon, Samuel Pozzi.
In the summer of 1885, three Frenchmen arrived in London for a few days' intellectual shopping: a prince, a count, and a commoner with an Italian name. In time, each of these men would achieve a certain level of renown, but who were they then and what was the significance of their sojourn to England? Answering these questions, Julian Barnes unfurls the stories of their lives which play out against the backdrop of the Belle Époque in Paris. Our guide through this world is Samuel Pozzi, the society doctor, free-thinker and man of science with a famously complicated private life who was the subject of one of John Singer Sargent's greatest portraits. In this vivid tapestry of people (Henry James, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Proust, James Whistler, among many others), place, and time, we see not merely an epoch of glamour and pleasure, but, surprisingly, one of violence, prejudice, and nativism—with more parallels to our own age than we might imagine. The Man in the Red Coat is, at once, a fresh portrait of the Belle Époque; an illuminating look at the longstanding exchange of ideas between Britain and France; and a life of a man who lived passionately in the moment but whose ideas and achievements were far ahead of his time.
Inspired by seeing John Singer Sargent's portrait of Samuel Jean Pozzi at the National Gallery in London, Booker Prize winner Barnes (The Only Story) investigates the life of the 19th-century French "society doctor" in this wry, essayistic, and art-filled account. Crediting Pozzi with "transforming French gynaecology from a mere subdivision of general medicine into a discipline in its own right," Barnes sketches his subject's relationships with Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde, among others, and illuminates the Belle poque in France, a period that might retroactively appear as "a last flowering of a settled high society," but at the time felt more like "an age of neurotic, even hysterical national anxiety." Beginning with Pozzi's June 1885 trip to London, Barnes episodically charts the doctor's rise from "Bergerac boy to Parisian high society," recounting his marriage to a railroad heiress; his numerous affairs, including with actress Sarah Bernhardt; and his advancement of modern medical procedures. Barnes's wit ("bad smells are good reminders") and expert plundering of source material (the Princess of Monaco called Pozzi "disgustingly handsome") add a lightness of touch that counterbalances the heavy load of names, dates, and obscure historical events. Full of admiration and deep feeling for its "progressive, international, and constantly inquisitive" subject, this sparkling account takes on added resonance in a moment marked by a return of nativism.