Biographers usually tell the life story of a person with strong name recognition. It’s much harder to pull off the story of those who are largely forgotten. Few people today are likely to recognize Count Robert de Montesquiou, or Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi, two of the principal figures in The Man in the Red Coat. Yet Julian Barnes succeeds brilliantly in bringing them to life ... Pozzi is the main character, but only intermittently, for Barnes’s achievement is to retrace the crossing and recrossing paths of dozens of individuals in a milieu that was once ostentatiously up-to-date ... The book is a pleasure to read in every way. Barnes writes with elegance and wit, probes motives with a novelist’s imagination but also a historian’s skepticism, plucking memorable formulations — enhanced by his own deft translations — from letters, journals and newspaper squibs.
... [a] joyous romp through the Belle Époque ... The Man in the Red Coat makes a solid, if implicit, argument against nationalism and celebrates the historical cultural exchange between France and the United Kingdom. Barnes has written a political book, even if he did not intend to ... The Man in the Red Coat is a strange, delightful piece of writing, a nontraditional kind of nonfiction that doesn’t claim to solve any puzzles or provide any kind of neat, counterintuitive account of the Belle Époque ... It’s obvious that deep research went into writing this, and more importantly we can sense how much fun Barnes must have had along the way. At times, reading it feels like having dinner with an old writer friend who, after hibernating for a book deadline for five months, can’t wait to share all the tidbits they discovered in the research process. It gets digressive but never tedious, thanks to Barnes’s wit, intelligence, and imagination as a storyteller ... He seems to have realized that nonfiction, if you do it the right way, can be as liberating to write, as free of formal constraints, and as true to life as fiction.
Barnes is fascinated by facts that turn out to be untrue and by unlikely but provable connections between people and things ... While Barnes is concerned in this book to find things that don’t add up, he also relishes the moments when a clear, connecting line can be drawn ... Wilde and Pozzi, and perhaps even Montesquiou, admired Bernhardt; Pozzi and James were both painted by Sargent; Wilde and Montesquiou had the same response to the interior décor at the Prousts. Barnes enjoys these connections. But in ways that are subtle and sharp, he seeks to puncture easy associations, doubtful assertions, lazy assumptions. He is interested in the space between what can be presumed and what can be checked.
[Barnes] paints a fin de siècle landscape of languid princesses, expensive whores, orgiastic balls, white peacocks (the coloured ones being vulgar), green lilies, absinthe, androgyny, drugs, boredom, wit and a lot of sexual gossip ... 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 ... [Barnes'] sparkling and very enjoyable book has a serious subtext; no borders should be erected that hinder the flow of knowledge and ideas. Art and science are best served if we are free to travel the whole world to do our intellectual and decorative shopping.
Barnes’s allusions to...historical events sometimes assume a knowledge of the players and '-isms' of the period that not every reader will have. Still, his take on Pozzi’s tumultuous times hits home. The most captivating moments in the book come when Barnes addresses the ways that we view figures from the past ... He’s also shrewd on how a biography—anyone’s biography—'can only be a public version of a public life, and a partial version of a private life' ... In the end, The Man in a Red Coat pinpoints the paradox of Pozzi’s life even if it can’t retrieve all his secrets.
Mr. Barnes evoke[s] the life of an enigmatic hero of Belle Époque Paris, a surgeon known to 'everyone' in his day but lost to us—how can he bring him vividly before our eyes ... Mr. Barnes keeps his eye on the emerging fragments, as his plethora of extraordinary characters continues to fill the stage ... Mr. Barnes keeps his eye, and ours, consistently on the shifting facets of Pozzi’s character as we read on, intrigued as he strides elegantly from surgery to salon to smoking room, always, in our mind’s eye, cutting a dash in that red coat. At one level, Pozzi’s story as told by Mr. Barnes is about style. But that is by no means all. Mr. Barnes is ever alert to the partiality of art and evidence.
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 ... People come and go in The Man in the Red Coat much as they would have if you’d actually known them.
...Pozzi is a fascinating subject for Barnes’s obsessive attention; an exceptional doctor and rational thinker, embedded in the most fashionable Parisian social circles ... Barnes is an urbane and cultured guide, weaving his commentary on art, literature, and philosophy into a fluid narrative whilst exposing the seams of a society preoccupied with reputation to a deadly degree ... The Man in the Red Coat is the story of an era so dizzying and fantastical it seems like fiction, even in Barnes’ impeccably researched retelling.
... readily challenges the tacit boundaries of conventional biography. Its panoramic gaze captures the vagaries of life, full of vanity and vainglory, during La Belle Époque ... Full of meta-commentary on what writers risk when reconstructing the past, the book seamlessly weaves the stories of numerous personas navigating the demands and fashions of fin de siècle France ... No gaps are filled with his usual novelistic prowess. What compelled this change in method for Barnes this time? Also, why write about Pozzi when a comprehensive biography, written by Claude Vanderpooten in 1992, already exists? ... truly eclectic in its telling, full of pithy aphorisms and ardor ... Barnes’s writing, once again, is clear, erudite, and deeply insightful ... Barnes is, without a question, that kind of writer, whose wit, intellect, and pleasant irony incite a lasting thrill in us.
Pozzi’s story is absolute catnip to Barnes — and he has made from it one of his best books ... 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 ... although repeatedly reproving 'sexual gossip', especially when it’s treated as the shortest route to getting at the truth about people, Barnes loves to indulge in it himself, on a higher level of course.
... a wonderful demonstration of the sort of free-range intellectual curiosity Barnes feels has been stymied by the xenophobia and national chauvinism behind Brexit ... expands into an erudite, entertaining, and beautifully illustrated disquisition on the period between 1870 and 1914, which actually bears some interesting parallels with our own times ... Barnes flits through the sexual gossip, petulant duels, violent outbursts, medical advances, anti-English jibes, and lurid excesses of the Belle Epoque, seasoning it all with wry interjections on art and literature ... Nothing glib about this delightful, consummately open-minded book.
...an artfully woven non-fiction account of life, love and art in the France of the Belle Époque ... Barnes depicts Pozzi from many angles. Still, he never rushes to judgment but uses the test-case of this altruistic, high-principled but selfishly sensual man to arraign the smug moralism about the past that reflects the 21st century’s 'coarsening of language and memory.' Despite his failings, Pozzi survives as “a kind of hero” for Barnes ... He doesn’t make things up but he does edit, frame and — above all — knit his patchwork of stories together with all the suturing skill of Dr Pozzi, that fast-fingered virtuoso of the catgut or silver-wire stitch ... this richly textured portrait of Pozzi and his friends does hold up a mirror to our own 'hyperventilating times.'
Writing this book during what he describes in an afterword as Britain’s 'deluded masochistic departure from the European Union', Barnes understands the parallels with our present fractured politics only too well ... In all this biographical detective work, Barnes is as attentive to what he can’t know as what he can ... In this spirit, Barnes addresses the reader directly from time to time, questioning how we might properly judge Pozzi’s hopelessly crowded life ... Should we, Barnes asks, simply condemn him by our own standards of transgression? His book makes a persuasive case that we should not.
...an involving study of a slice of the French past ... Barnes insists time and again that there is so much 'we cannot know'; that biography 'is a collection of holes tied together with string'. We perceive these days an uneasy contradiction between Pozzi the doctor transforming women’s lives through medicine and Pozzi the womaniser, making his wife miserable with his succession of lovers ... 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.
...[a] masterpiece by a guiding spirit of both fiction and non-fiction. Structurally, the book moves across character, place and time, with a delicious fluidity ... The tone is apparently conversational, playful even, but is in fact strictly controlled by the narrator/author who likes to insert asides, and ironic or even sarcastic comments. He is totally, maybe pathologically, alert – the reader also must remain vigilant lest a key detail slip by amid the rich flood of teasing ingredients. Here, every little thing, dear reader, counts ... I loved this book. I hope you do too.
It is not a pure biography or history, but an ever-widening gyre of the scandals, art, theory and fashions of the time ... a sharp commentary on biography — the phrase 'we cannot know' echoes not as a statement of failure but an ethic ... This new book — so contentedly diffuse — pulls into sharp focus. How were these men judged in their time? And how are we prompted to judge them now?
Barnes sets it up as a mystery, piecing together clues. For someone who has never heard the name Pozzi before, it is quite a revelation and quite a trip. It reads like a Six Degrees of Separation. Pozzi’s connections alone were more than sufficient to tell the story, but Barnes connects to his connections’ connections, their friends, lovers, haters, critics, customers, managers and acquaintances. And then their connections too ... With all the celebrity connections, the cattiness, criticism and outright bashing takes up a lot of space ... Still a neat concept though, and Barnes presents it dramatically and entertainingly. Oddly, the conclusion features, of all things, Brexit, and how the British government is screwing up the country and its future. No argument from me, but it sits uncomfortably with such in-depth profiles of rich characters from a hundred and fifty years ago. And mostly French at that.
At one point, Barnes pellucidly defines biography as 'a collection of holes tied together with string.' It is a brilliant image. Some holes are emptier than others. He often cites the biographer’s refrain, 'We cannot know,' for facts he must surmise ... The Man in the Red Coat is replete with more than enough string. It moves effortlessly from the frivolity of [a] shopping spree into intellectual diversions about the 'hectic, violent, narcissistic and neurotic' Belle Epoque. There are engaging anecdotes about bullets and duels, dandyism and decadence, art and literature, politics and religion. Barnes’ version of 'factual certainties and confident hypotheses' is number one with a bullet.
At one level, The Man in the Red Coat is one long, meandering essay in Montaigne mode. It slides effortlessly from one half-connected topic to another, offers parenthetical thoughts on affairs of our own day or life in general, and time and again wonders what we really know ... But this is more than a biography of Pozzi ... Barnes is sure that in such a showy age, as in our own, there was no such thing as bad publicity.
[Barnes'] knowledge is encyclopedic, and his attitude bemused ... The book is lavishly illustrated, almost as though its author pages through an album of celebrities ... At times this portrait of a period can seem over-detailed. There’s a kind of cultural name-dropping that may seem relentless ... interspersed throughout this compendium are—to continue in the Gallic mode—bons mots and apercus ... Such sentences enliven every page. Barnes is a delightful raconteur, and there’s a good deal of first-person rumination here throughout. His love of detail is infectious, his eye exact, and his narrative energy compelling. We could not wish for better company, except perhaps for that of Dr. Pozzi himself, The Man in the Red Coat.
...a nostalgic saunter through the literary and artistic milieux of belle époque Paris - a lost world of dandies, duels and decadence ... 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 ... In a short coda to the book, Barnes calls out the 'deluded, masochistic' nature of the Brexit project and suggests that Pozzi’s cosmopolitanism and intellectual curiosity offer an inspirational counterpoint to the boneheaded insularity of English nationalism.
The sentiment is worthy...but in truth the heady brew of human comedy - quarrelling aesthetes, salacious gossip, family dramas and gory deaths - is more than enough to be getting on with. Through-lines be damned: sometimes a journey is sufficiently colourful as to warrant making for its own sake.
Julian Barnes is up to his old tricks in his new book, and 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 in a slim volume that evades any tidy category of fact or fiction ... a delight, albeit one that may occasionally irritate and bewilder the literal-minded reader ... 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 élite of the belle époque era ... What a deliciously intelligent entertainment this is, couched in a prose of enviable suppleness.
This is no straightforward biography, however, and impatient readers will want to prepare themselves for a (fabulous) meandering, objectively unobjective journey through late 19th-century and early 20th-century Europe ... Barnes unfurls his story like a novel, even as he notes that biographies have strange twists and unresolved endings that would never be left in a novel. As such, there are many questions the reader is left to wrestle with – most noted by Barnes with wry apology – but the effect is charming rather than frustrating ... Despite the seemingly unconcerned nature of the book, it is a rich, well-researched resource for any reader wanting to understand more about late 19th-century France and the United Kingdom. It offers insight into the art and literature of the era and a gossipy who’s-who of major and minor figures of the time. And as a biography, it puts aside any pretense of authorial distance, and instead invites the reader to imagine, marvel, and guess along with Barnes.
...earns a place in the Barnes pantheon...and I’m not sure it doesn’t perch – to borrow a parrotic metaphor – a little higher than all of them. It is certainly a return to form – or, rather, to freedom from formal constraint, resembling a non-fiction Flaubert’s Parrot in its unanxious fealty to what might be interesting or tickling ... The Man in the Red Coat isn’t free of its author’s bad habits...But for the most part the sheer amount of material that Barnes wants to get through – the weight of anecdote – limits the opportunities for snideness and show-boating ... the book appears to proffer no overarching thesis or connective thread, no chapter divisions, not even any order. And yet it’s never dull ... Though I have never been convinced by the idea that Julian Barnes is an essayist trapped inside a novelist, The Man in the Red Coat suggests that he always had somewhere in him the author of gently rambling, lightly polemical book-length non-fiction ... [a] lovable mongrel of a book.
The Belle Époque—the classier, artier French cousin to the Gilded Age—comes to vibrant, sexy life in Julian Barnes’ new biography The Man in the Red Coat ... The Man Booker Prize-winning Barnes is an excellent writer of both fiction and nonfiction and his creative mind comes to his aid in telling Pozzi’s tale ... The Man in the Red Coat is an exciting, surprising and informative look at an age that is historically famous but also under the radar when compared to its geographic and temporal neighbors. At times, the book itself feels like art come to life, which in a way it is.
...renowned British literary writer Julian Barnes creates a fascinating picture of gynaecologist and socialite Samuel Jean Pozzi ... By putting the spotlight on three friends on a city trip, Barnes begins a detailed analysis of the activities, social norms and ‘structure of feeling’ (Williams, 1977) of the late 19th century ... Barnes conjures up a glittering and scandalous society full of writers, artists, duellists, snobs and dandies (Montesquiou, Oscar Wilde, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Jean Lorrain) ... Apart from the fascinating biographical details and the observations on dandyism and celebrity processes, on duels and politics, on art and collecting, what makes this work of literature particularly intriguing, is that it constantly questions the mechanisms of writing fiction.
Booker Prize–winner Barnes...investigates the life of the 19th-century French 'society doctor' in this wry, essayistic, and art-filled account ... Barnes’s wit...and expert plundering of source material...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.
A fresh, urbane history of the dramatic and melodramatic belle epoque ... [an] irreverent, gossipy, sparkling history ... Finely honed biographical intuition and a novelist’s sensibility make for a stylish, engrossing narrative.