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.
... [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.