Barnes tells us that he immersed himself in these past French lives partly as a respite from “Britain’s deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union”, and as a gesture against insularity. And indeed it is salutary to be so thoroughly submerged – even sometimes to the point of drowning – in abundant detail from the “distant, decadent, hectic, violent, narcissistic and neurotic Belle Epoque”, with all its fascination and its difference from us. The past liberates us from the shallowness of our absorption in the present, and reminds us that we always know less than we think about what we’re doing.
I cannot say that I approached The Man in the Red Coat with much optimism, having resisted this writer’s previous forays into the storied past and found little to enjoy or admire in any of the 11 books (four novels, two collections of stories, two memoirs, three collections of essays) that he has published since Something to Declare, in 2002. But The Man in the Red Coat earns a place in the Barnes pantheon alongside Before She Met Me (1982), Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), and the eccentric Staring at the Sun (1986) and Talking it Over (1991), and I’m not sure it doesn’t perch – to borrow a parrotic metaphor – a little higher than all of them.
Barnes’s prose style is almost exasperating in its studious sobriety. One longs for some linguistic exuberance to complement all this debauchery, but to no avail: if Julian Barnes were a high-street clothing store, he would surely be Gap. Luckily his subject matter is inherently interesting. As Barnes explains, Pozzi’s very existence was a provocation at a time when the prevailing political currents in France were royalist, revanchist, nativist and anti-semitic: a Protestant turned atheist, a free-thinker and a supporter of Dreyfus, he was “a sane man in a demented age”.
Oddly enough, if there was one person who did not exhibit this mania for impressing other people, it was Pozzi. He improved medical methods not to become famous, but to save lives; he collected fine paintings because he loved them, not to compete with rival connoisseurs; and when he took a long-term mistress he managed to be neither secretive about her nor ostentatious. It is his calm self-assurance that shines through in the great painting of him by Sargent, Dr Pozzi at Home, which first sparked Julian Barnes’s interest in the man, and gave him the title of this marvellously rich and thought-provoking book.
Pozzi’s story is absolute catnip to Barnes — and he has made from it one of his best books, very handsomely published too. It ticks all his boxes: immersing himself in the cultural life of 19th-century France, contrasting this with British insularity now and then, playing with life-facts, and puzzling about sex. It’s a bravura performance, highly entertaining even if it covers some familiar ground rather didactically (Oscar Wilde, A Rebours, the jewelled tortoise, the Goncourts, Flaubert and Gustave Moreau, etc). If we don’t get Flaubert’s parrot this time, we do get Bernhardt’s leg (amputated in 1915, ostensibly preserved in a cabinet of curiosities but the relic lately proved an imposter).
The author’s shrewd assessments and droll asides add to the enjoyment of a book filled with a phantasmagoria of odd characters and freakish events. Count Robert de Montesquiou, for example, left a “malicious and misogynistic sign-off” to his former lover Madame Armand de Caillavet: a casket full of her unopened letters. During this delightful meandering, Barnes also divulges memorable tales about Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust and artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who is described in a damning triplet as “shabby, syphilitic and insane”.
Barnes openly relishes that so much about and around Pozzi remains elusive or ambiguous, and everything about this book is a teasing cat-and-mouse affair that almost sadistically dangles more than it delivers – until the story pounces in a bizarrely shocking and unexpected climax. It would be a shame to spoil this, as readers will take retrospective pleasure in realising how cunningly the denouement has been trailed throughout the text – a typical Barnes tactic.
But no. Barnes has chosen to produce a scrupulously non-fictional portrait of Pozzi, a life-and-times biography dismantled and disordered. It’s a modernist approach —you could call it Cubist if you wanted to get cute. Crowded with colourful Belle Epoque characters, the narrative meanders here and there, cheerfully digressing. Barnes himself pops up occasionally to comment on his own methods — saying, for instance about the loathsome journalist Jean Lorraine: ‘He is someone you half want to keep out of your book, for fear he might take over too much of it.’ Barnes as tour guide is humorous, occasionally crotchety and always prudishly sceptical.
When Barnes turns his attention to people who actually existed, he is attracted to the parts of them that lie just outside the picture. His Flaubert escapes us at crucial moments. His Shostakovich also eludes us, or suddenly becomes inscrutable, at the very moment we’re most deeply enmeshed in his consciousness. In this book, too, the phrase ‘we cannot know’ recurs, revealing an attractive trait in Barnes’s writing: he is drawn to tact, discretion, scruples. Barnes also approaches the familiar cast of dandies and aesthetes from refreshing angles.
Introduce a gun into your plot, Julian Barnes tells us at the outset of this beguiling hybrid of a book, and “a sturdy rule of theatre declares” that it will be used as the action unfolds. In The Man in the Red Coat, an artfully woven non-fiction account of life, love and art in the France of the Belle Époque, guns go off with alarming frequency. Fired as a result of duels, feuds and grudges, they wound or kill a whole shooting-gallery of authors, journalists, politicians, seducers — and doctors.
In all this biographical detective work, Barnes is as attentive to what he can’t know as what he can. Highlighting the limitations of fact and empathy, his book flirts occasionally with the tone of his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, foregrounding the writer’s present and the difficulties of accessing the past, feeling the way to where truth might lie... Should we, Barnes asks, simply condemn him by our own standards of transgression? His book makes a persuasive case that we should not.
Each new book by Julian Barnes is different from its predecessor in that it offers an alternative way of configuring reality. Sometimes, as with his masterpiece, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), the new book seems different from anything ever written before. The Man in the Red Coat is no exception to the newness rule. At first, though, it seems to be a bran-tub of gossip and scandal from familiar Barnes territory — the so-called belle époque, meaning Parisian social and artistic life between 1870 and 1914.
Reading this book is like re-spooling Andy Warhol, or reading Nicholas Coleridge’s recently published The Glossy Years... It's top international tittle-tattle, awash with cantankerous snobbishness, reminding you that high society is always a pretty small fishpond whose fish sparkle as brightly as the jewelled shell of today’s tortoise — until tomorrow’s flashier reptile comes along... And so his sparkling and very enjoyable book has a serious subtext; no borders should be erected that hinder the flow of knowledge and ideas.