cover image The Man in the Red Coat

The Man in the Red Coat

Julian Barnes. Knopf, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-525-65877-1

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 Époque 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. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi, Inc. (Feb.)