The man in the title of Julian Barnes’s eighth work of non-fiction is the Parisian physician Samuel Pozzi. The red coat, or perhaps it’s a dressing-gown, is what he is wearing in the 1881 portrait by John Singer Sargent, Dr Pozzi at Home. It is a swashbuckling, very theatrical portrait, one that would make anyone curious about its subject. Almost any other sitter would be devoured by that bright red coat, floor-length with a giant collar, but Dr Pozzi easily dominates his apparel, the coat merely a showcase for his matinée-idol looks and long, tapered fingers. So it was, too, in Pozzi’s world, as chronicled by Barnes; even among the loudest and most insistent personalities of fin-de-siècle Paris, the mild-mannered Dr Pozzi more than held his own. And he knew everybody, or at least that small segment of the population that considered itself to be everybody.
And yet, unless you’ve seen the painting – which was for a long time held by his family, and then by Armand Hammer (it has been at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles since 1991) – you have probably never heard of Dr Pozzi. That is because, unlike his friends, who tended to be writers, painters, spendthrifts, characters, aristocrats, he was a physician. That didn’t prevent him from being a star in his time, however. He wasn’t just a society doctor, but a pioneering gynaecologist, an advocate of antiseptic procedures, and eventually the head of the Lourcine-Pascal Hospital in Paris, which was renamed after his teacher Paul Broca. Physicians were sufficiently celebrated then that no fewer than 23 of them – including Pozzi, in two different poses – were featured in the second series of trading cards that came with the chocolate bars sold by the retail magnate Félix Potin.
These cards, black-bordered photographs roughly one inch by three, on thin semigloss stock, appeared in two series totalling 1010 images in 1898 and 1908 (a third series was published in 1922), and featured the celebrities of prewar Paris: poets, lawyers, cyclists, clerics, wrestlers, painters, royalty, cabaret artistes, cabinet ministers, newspaper columnists, a scattering of prominent foreigners. This pop culture social register was ubiquitous (and still is, in the secondary markets of the world), providing a useful map of contemporary celebrity – not exactly fame, since it includes sundry princelings and ceremonial beards perhaps not identifiable to chocolate consumers even then, and notably lacks those figures who would be claimed by the future (such as Picasso, Méliès, Apollinaire). For Barnes, it admirably displays his cast of characters, all of whom were in late middle age or beyond and secure in their reputations by 1908, and Potin cards are sprinkled throughout the book and decorate its endpapers. (It is a lavish object, printed on coated stock and equipped with a placemarker ribbon.)
The book is at once a biography of Pozzi in the context of his time and a picture of the time as refracted by Pozzi. Barnes constructs it as a kind of mosaic. There are no chapter divisions. Instead, on every third or fourth page a paragraph ends with a double space and the narrative changes tack. Pozzi takes centre stage every fifteen or twenty pages, alternating with seven or eight major supporting characters and several recurring themes: duels, the rise of the dandy, sex. The form admirably mirrors its subject, producing a swirl of incidents and performances and personalities kept in check by the steady pulse of Pozzi’s gradual ascent to eminence.
Pozzi makes an attractive subject not only because of his looks, his social entrée and his accomplishments. He was also a bilingual Anglophile, partly raised by an English stepmother, and he learned his antiseptic procedures in Edinburgh from Joseph Lister, who devised them. None of that was not important at a time when the majority of his compatriots, even the most large-spirited and liberal, entertained anti-English prejudices, whether virulent or jocular, conscious or not; another of the book’s sub-themes concerns what the French saw as the ruddiness and toothiness of British women. The two countries were then in open competition with their missions civilisatrices around the world. Barnes recalls the Fashoda Incident of 1898, when a French expeditionary force (eight French and 120 Senegalese soldiers) squatted in a ruined fort in the Sudanese Upper Nile, and Kitchener, then leading the Egyptian Army, politely told them to get lost, distributing warm champagne and ordering the ‘Marseillaise’ played by a British military band. It was all very amicable, but the humiliation festered in the heart of the young Charles de Gaulle, who would go on, nearly seventy years later, to block the UK’s entrance to the Common Market.
Pozzi, who translated Darwin and ‘had his suits and curtains made from material sent from London’, is presented as an exemplar of the good European and a reproach to chauvinists. Indeed, we first catch sight of him in London, on a shopping spree with a couple of pals in 1885. They visited Liberty & Co., the Grosvenor Gallery, Bond Street for tweeds, a Handel festival at the Crystal Palace, as well as a number of prominent artists and writers, since they came bearing a letter of introduction addressed to Henry James by Sargent. They made an odd trio: Pozzi was ‘a famously heterosexual commoner’ and his companions were ‘aristocrats of “Hellenic tendencies”’. The elder was Prince Edmond de Polignac, a composer and bon vivant whom Proust described as looking like ‘an abandoned dungeon converted into a library’. His father had been minister of state under Charles X and was the author of the 1830 Ordinances, which revoked freedom of the press and attributed absolute powers to the monarch, ostensibly for reasons of security. After the July Revolution, which the Ordinances provoked, he was sentenced to ‘civil death’, so that when Edmond was born four years later, his birth certificate listed the father as ‘The prince called Marquis de Chalançon, currently travelling’.
The third member of the party was described by Sargent in his letter to James as ‘the unique extra-human’. That would be Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac. This scion of the nobility (he was descended from d’Artagnan) is familiar to many of us who might not know his name, because he was the inspiration for more major fictional characters than any one person could ever aspire to be. He was the main though not the sole ingredient in Proust’s Baron de Charlus; he was to a very large degree des Esseintes in Huysmans’s À rebours (his portrait by Boldini was for many years the cover image of the Penguin edition); he was recognisably Peacock in Edmond Rostand’s play Chantecler (1910); while in Jean Lorrain’s scandalous if less well remembered Monsieur de Phocas (1901) he appears in three guises, one of them attached to his own name. Montesquiou was an outsized personality, whose excesses of aestheticism, whim and snobbery in addition to his long, thin, exquisitely groomed presence made him an almost mythological figure, at once an unrepeatably specific set of characteristics and, somehow, a type. There are times in this book when you can feel Barnes struggling to keep Montesquiou from running away with the story.
Montesquiou appears in The Man in the Red Coat both as himself and as des Esseintes; Huysmans’s novel is mentioned as frequently as most of the major characters. Although Montesquiou did not renounce human society and was not drawn to Catholic apologists (nor did he consider a visit to Galignani’s bookstore and an English-style Parisian tavern as fulfilling all the requirements of a trip to Britain), des Esseintes’s sensibility is his, as are some of the character’s furnishings and decorative objects. While Montesquiou was imperious, cutting, vain, insolent and sometimes cruel, a snob of the sort who measures minute degrees of superiority by lineage and at the same time drops the names of celebrities, he was also a ‘professor of beauty’, as Proust would call him, who sought only the most rarefied sensations. He wrote something like fifty books of prose and verse, most of them published in small and expensive editions and hence not much read; flowers and aromas predominate among the titular allusions. But he also supported the careers of Mallarmé, Debussy, Fauré, Verlaine – materially in the last case; founded the posthumous cult of the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore; and kept alive the flame of the Comtesse di Castiglione, who between 1856 and 1893 staged 450 extraordinarily varied, dramatic, ironically layered photographic portraits of herself (taken by Pierre-Louis Pierson), but had to wait until our time to be fully appreciated.
Montesquiou was elegantly evasive about his homosexuality, though in the context of the time he could be quite effusively homoerotic without raising many more eyebrows than he did with his other pursuits (France repealed its sodomy laws in 1791, but social judgment was another matter). He lived with his Argentinian secretary, Gabriel Yturri, for twenty years, until Yturri’s untimely death from diabetes. They enjoyed dressing up in matching costumes and having themselves photographed; Barnes includes a shot of the two of them in wonderfully over-the-top ‘Oriental’ robes. There is also a photograph of Montesquiou posing as the severed head of John the Baptist (which connects to Flaubert’s Hérodias – everything connects to everything in this book). Across the page is a photograph of Oscar Wilde, Byronic in traditional Greek Evzone garb. Wilde makes multiple appearances in the book as a shadow analogue to the French principals. He and Montesquiou were both associated with sunflowers, for example; both affected to despise Sargent; and both of them told Proust’s parents, by way of acknowledging their hospitality, how ugly their house was. And of course À rebours, cited in The Picture of Dorian Gray, came up in Wilde’s second trial at the Old Bailey in 1895 as a ‘sodomitical’ book. (It would not be translated into English until 1922, after the deaths of all concerned.)
Also running a rough parallel to Montesquiou was Jean Lorrain, who could possibly be described as his nemesis, but only if the playing field were levelled a bit. Lorrain was not just gay but out and loud and impatient with the waffling of his more discreet peers, a ‘dandy, poet, novelist, playwright, reviewer, chronicler … scandal-monger, rumour-driver, etheromaniac and duellist’ as well as being ‘extravagant, fearless, contemptible, malicious, talented and envious’ – and theatrical (he is shown posing for the camera as a ‘dying warrior’). But he came from the middle class and was much too large and ungainly to cut the necessary figure in Montesquiou’s crowd. He was always getting into fistfights, in part because of his taste for rough trade, but also because he was driven by resentment: with him, you wonder which came first – the resentment or the things he resented. Wilde called him a poseur (and he called Wilde a faker). Montesquiou mostly ignored him, and Lorrain’s response was the elaborately contrived Monsieur de Phocas – Barnes wonders whether the title, which doesn’t seem to allude to anything or anyone in particular, was intended to be pronounced phonetically à l’anglais – which is not only a roman à clef about Montesquiou and his circle but also an extension of aspects of À rebours (a roman à clef à clef?). On first reading Huysmans’s novel, Lorrain had been so impressed that he sent the author a fan letter accompanied by photos of himself in costume and pictures of his bedroom. Lorrain seems barely endurable, but also touching, if kept at a distance.
And yet he was loyal to Pozzi, as were Montesquiou and Polignac – as was seemingly everyone. Despite his provincial bourgeois origins, Pozzi was somehow immune to the snobbery of his friends and patients, among whom were some of the biggest snobs in the country. His looks, which failed to diminish with age, must surely have had something to do with it (his trim Van Dyke beard and side-parting make him seem almost our contemporary). His charm, presumably inordinate, radiates from the photographs. Above all, what with his friends and his profession, let alone his gynaecological speciality, he must have been prized for his discretion. Pozzi was unhappily married; he’d been romantically hitched to a provincial heiress, Thérèse Loth-Cazalis, but the romance had soured after 18 months. They slogged on. She was the source of their wealth, and wittingly or not financed his adventures, which were apparently considerable. Pozzi was so discreet, however, that he left little by way of evidence, besides a nickname given him by a society figure: ‘L’Amour médecin’ – the title of a Molière play, which Barnes renders as ‘Dr Love’.
The big exception was Sarah Bernhardt, who had demolished discretion, carrying on openly with all sorts of people and happily pocketing their money and jewels. She and Pozzi met when they were both young, she a rising star and he a medical student, at a dinner for his cultural patron, the Parnassian poet Leconte de Lisle. When Bernhardt ‘recited from memory what sounds like half [de Lisle’s] oeuvre, the poet wept and kissed her hands; the evening was a great success.’ Soon she was having Pozzi over for intimate soirées at her place. And that is all we know, apart from the fact that they were still close friends, and he her doctor, fifty years later. She called him ‘Dr God’. Their circles intersected in any case; she was also close to Montesquiou. Barnes reproduces an amazing photo of Bernhardt and Montesquiou, dressed identically in the androgynous pageboy costume she wore for François Coppée’s play Le Passant – if anything, she looks the more masculine of the two. They may have had an affair, maybe Montesquiou’s first heterosexual encounter, or perhaps that was, as with des Esseintes, with a female ventriloquist.
Pozzi appears to have been a champion rake, or perhaps serial monogamist, and although Barnes reasonably winces at Pozzi’s previous biographer’s statistically improbable suggestion that ‘all these women remained his friends’, this would certainly have helped to keep the curtain drawn over his dalliances. And then Barnes enumerates the duels, which were frequent and inevitable in these higher social and intellectual circles; sometimes the duellists fired into the air and sometimes they were out for blood. Duels affected nearly everyone Pozzi knew, including Montesquiou, Lorrain, Proust, and Pozzi’s own son Jean – but not Pozzi himself, though he was always around to bandage the wounds. There are times when Pozzi, omnipresent but always exercising his charm just beyond the centre of the picture, begins to seem like a Zelig of the Belle Époque. But of course he had a serious career to attend to. He was not aiming to be remembered for his wit or extravagance or libertinage; he was concerned with antisepsis, and surgery for gunshot wounds to the abdomen, and the improvement of hysterectomies, and writing his two-volume Treatise of Gynaecology (1890), which became a standard text worldwide.
In late middle age Pozzi found a steady mistress, Emma Fischoff, who was also married and a parent of three. The pair travelled around Europe every year from 1899 to 1914, and even had their union blessed by an old Armenian monk on the island of San Lazzaro in Venice, a ritual they repeated annually. What we know of Pozzi’s earlier affairs comes mostly from the complaints registered by his daughter, Catherine, in her teenage diary: ‘My father is one of those men, one of those Don Juans who just can’t help it. How many hearts has he broken? How many wounded? Without counting that of Maman, who sees the amorous glances given him by Mmes B., S., T., S., B., X., Y., Z., etc.’ She called him ‘le cher père si bien adultère’. Catherine was a remarkable character herself, a bluestocking who studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, until she gave in, unhappily, to pressure from her mother to return to Paris. She wrote an epistolary autobiographical novella, Agnès (1927), bylined ‘C. K.’ and published in the Nouvelle Revue française, but most of her writing was published and celebrated posthumously (she died at 52 from the tuberculosis which had pursued her for most of her life), including her poems, her journals and her correspondence with Rilke. Her first love was a young American woman who died of a heart ailment at 19 after they’d spent just two months together; she perfunctorily married a boulevard playwright and realised her error at the same time as she realised she was pregnant; her most passionate adult relationship was her eight-year affair with Paul Valéry, who was her intellectual soulmate but regrettably devoted to his family.
People come and go in The Man in the Red Coat much as they would have if you’d actually known them. They experience triumphs and humiliations and then go off on extended trips abroad. Their lives sometimes take unexpected turns. Edmond de Polignac, for example, can be seen in Tissot’s Le Cercle de la rue Royale (1868), in which the club members (who paid a thousand francs apiece to be depicted) stand around the arcade as if they were waiting for a bus – except the prince, who reclines in his chair, head thrown back on the cushions, looking massively bored. Otherwise Polignac went generally unnoticed, an aristocratic cipher, unable to show much for his musical inclinations – and penniless, having dissipated his inheritance in ill-advised investments and reduced at 57 to a small apartment empty of furniture, all of it having been seized by creditors. ‘As in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton,’ Barnes writes, ‘there was an evident and familiar solution: find an American heiress.’ Montesquiou came to the rescue, fixing Polignac up with Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the sewing-machine fortune (‘It’s the union of the lyre and the sewing machine,’ the mother of the painter Jacques-Émile Blanche said, as if echoing Lautréamont). Happily, Winnaretta was gay too. They got along tremendously and the marriage lasted until the end of his life.
The mood begins to darken fifty pages from the close. The Pozzi marriage ended, after thirty years, in 1909. Pozzi, a fervent Dreyfusard, began to be targeted by the antisemitic right in the person of the poisonous Édouard Drumont, editor of La Libre Parole – ‘free speech’ being a smokescreen for the racist right wing even then. Pozzi’s younger son, Jacques, was hospitalised for psychosis. Then the shootings began, some of them close to home: Aimé Guinard, head surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu, was killed by a disgruntled former patient. Gaston Calmette, editorial director of Le Figaro and friend to Pozzi and Proust, was killed by the wife of the minister of finance, a leftist whom the paper had been campaigning against. And then the war began. I won’t spoil the ending of the story except to note that the 20th century had by then fully arrived, with all of its demons, turning the Belle Époque into a hazy, barely credible memory in the minds of everyone but Proust.