Reflections on dandyism and duelling in Paris
Biography: The Man in the Red Coat
Jonathan Cape, hardback, 290 pages, €17
Admirers of Flaubert's Parrot or A History of the World in 10½ Chapters will again be charmed by the dry wit and playful erudition of Julian Barnes in a slim volume that evades any tidy category of fact or fiction. Opening with a number of alternative starting points and ending with a list of unanswerable questions (all of which, the author slyly comments, "could be resolved in a novel"), it rambles freely over its territory, without feeling any need to anchor itself in the scholarly apparatus of source notes or bibliography. The result is a delight, albeit one that may occasionally irritate and bewilder the literal-minded reader.
Its connecting thread is the life of the French surgeon Samuel Jean de Pozzi - most familiar today as the dashingly handsome figure, bearded and clad in a long scarlet robe, who dominates a painting by John Singer Sargent that made a great impression on former Booker winner Barnes in an exhibition four years ago.
Pozzi emerges to Barnes as "a kind of hero... a highly intelligent, swiftly decisive scientific rationalist". Born in 1846 of Protestant Italian descent, he was brought up in the Dordogne and made his way to Paris like one of Balzac's ambitious and starry-eyed jeunes hommes de province. By the 1880s he had become one of the outstanding medical men of his era - a pioneering gynaecologist and surgeon, instituting Joseph Lister's standards of antiseptic hygiene at a time when the rest of his profession barely bothered to wash their hands before operating. Liberal in his views and a Dreyfusard, he renovated and ran a major hospital in Paris, as well as doing public service as a senator in the Dordogne. Naturally kind and generously willing to help anyone in distress, he was loyal to his friends and earned few enemies.
The Achilles' heel, at least for his contemporaries, was his reputation as a Lothario, but the facts are hardly sensational. His marriage to a Catholic heiress broke down quickly, the initial cause being the baneful influence of an overweening mother-in-law. The couple nevertheless had four children, born over 14 years, and lived separate but parallel existences in the same house until they divorced after three decades of cohabitation. Pozzi also had also a youthful affair with actress Sarah Bernhardt (who didn't?), and remained her physician and friend ever after. Later he kept a publicly acknowledged mistress - a married woman of companionable culture and intelligence who was at his side when he died.
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Whatever else he got up to remains rooted solely in scandalous gossip of a kind all too routine in the feverish culture of 19th-century Paris. Catherine, his thoroughly disagreeable and mentally disturbed daughter (mistress of the poet Paul Valery for eight years), felt unloved by her father and accuses him in her diary of being "a moral wreck", but otherwise there is "not a single recorded note of female complaint against him", and no solid evidence of compulsive or exploitative womanising at all.
From the start it is clear that this is no cradle-to-grave biography. Where the book's originality lies is in the interweaving of Pozzi's life with a broader portrait of his milieu and specifically his remarkably extensive links with the literary elite of the Belle Époque era.
Pozzi pops up everywhere, in all sorts of contexts, without becoming a major player in any of them. He met Victor Hugo, he was a friend of Proust's father and possibly a lover of Bizet's widow. Reflections on dandyism, duelling, Ingres's Portrait of Monsieur Bertin, and the fate of Bernhardt's amputated leg are among the many casually related digressions, but Barnes is continually drawn back to two of Pozzi's closest friends - the fastidious aesthete Robert, Comte de Montesquiou and literary journalist Jean Lorrain - both homosexual and mired in the decadent tendency, neither of them immediately appealing.
But 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.
What a deliciously intelligent entertainment this is, couched in a prose of enviable suppleness. One quibble: why does a supremely graceful stylist resort to the gratingly ugly coinages of "Englishly", "Frenchly", "Belgianly" and "modernly"? The rest of us couldn't get away with such solecisms, but a master is at work here, so perhaps one has to accept them as part of his infinitely subtle game.