The Man in the Red Coat is at once a portrait of the Belle Epoque—its heroes and villains, its writers, artists and thinkers—and a life of a man ahead of his time. The new book from Julian Barnes illuminates the fruitful and longstanding exchange of ideas between Britain and France, and makes a case for keeping that exchange alive.
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.
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.