Julian Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat: gently rambling, lightly polemical non-fiction

Best, if inadequately, described as a biography, this book’s lack of a subtitle or introduction or any clue to intentions is telling: anything may be included or excluded.

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This more-ish book is best, if inadequately, described as a biography of Samuel-Jean Pozzi, the French gynaecologist. Pozzi is well known as the subject of an 1881 painting, though not to the novelist Julian Barnes, despite his deep love and knowledge of 19th-century France, until he visited an exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s portraits four years ago. He was immediately intrigued by Dr Pozzi at Home, which depicts Pozzi, bearded and contemplative, in a scarlet dressing gown or coat with his right hand placed against his chest. At a time when Britain was preparing to vote on European membership, Barnes was delighted to discover that this Frenchman of Italian extraction was not only the most powerful surgeon of his time, as well as a senator, village mayor, campaigner, atheist, Dreyfusard, and Don Juan. He was also an Anglophile who in 1874 co-translated Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and in 1876 attended a British Medical Association conference in Edinburgh, where he embraced the principles of Listerism.

For this son of foreign-language teachers, best known for novels about English attitudes to France, Pozzi became an exemplar of anti-chauvinist sentiment. He now assumes the starring role in a generally star-studded account of Anglo-French relations during la belle époque, when the two cultures collaborated on some things (the figure of “the dandy”) and butted heads on others (the French could never stop bashing the figure of the “Englishwoman”). Barnes takes as his starting point a visit that Pozzi and a couple of friends paid to London in 1885, to shop and to sample “aestheticism”, a sojourn that featured appearances from Henry James and Whistler before being cut short – for Pozzi at least – by the needs of one of his clients, Alexandre Dumas’s wife.

I cannot say that I approached The Man in the Red Coat with much optimism, having resisted this writer’s previous forays into the storied past and found little to enjoy or admire in any of the 11 books (four novels, two collections of stories, two memoirs, three collections of essays) that he has published since Something to Declare, in 2002. But The Man in the Red Coat earns a place in the Barnes pantheon alongside Before She Met Me (1982), Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), and the eccentric Staring at the Sun (1986) and Talking it Over (1991), 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. Titled digressions include “Five Glimpses of Pozzi” and “How to Treat Your Literary (and Social) Inferiors”. Occasionally, without throat-clearing or apology or explanation, Barnes will issue a pronouncement like “the Goncourt Journal is one of the great documents of the age”, and away we go.

The Man in the Red Coat isn’t free of its author’s bad habits. He seems unable to resist pedantries like “because of, or despite”, or to avoid calling Sargent “a magnificent painter; also, a painter of magnificence” or Sarah Bernhardt “an actress with a new kind of naturalness (though, naturally, a naturalness that was entirely controlled)”. When he refers to the “swaggery art critic Robert Hughes”, you want to say that as a writer on painting and as a writer of prose, Barnes isn’t fit to polish Hughes’s biker jacket or reposition his bow-tie. 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 lack of a subtitle or introduction or any clue to intentions is telling. Anything may be included or excluded. Why, you sometimes wonder, are we reading about duels and operations, but not bombs, or coups d’état, or the Eiffel Tower, or Haussmann, or expositions, or the Moulin Rouge, or the parliament, or the Church, or labour disputes, or the economy? There isn’t an index or note on sources, but I’m pretty sure Barnes doesn’t mention any of the subjects covered in The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck’s classic 1955 book on the Parisian fin-de-siècle: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Apollinaire.

On the whole, worldly affairs take precedence over activities in the cultural field. Though it’s rare to complain about any book, let alone one from this author, that Gustave Flaubert is given insufficient shrift, you can’t help but notice that Barnes makes little reference to the site of perhaps the greatest late-19th-century Anglo-French traffic – the theory of the novel. The ideas about style and form advanced by Flaubert and Turgenev and their followers were carried to England by Henry James and taken up by Conrad and Barnes’s beloved Ford Madox Ford.

Barnes seems content to show Oscar Wilde reading A Rebours on his honeymoon in 1884 and being inspired to write The Picture of Dorian Gray – in which Huysmans’s novel features – though even he isn’t convinced by Wilde’s claim that reading French novels had a formative effect on his style. Similarly, despite the book’s nice-smelling art-book pages, there’s little on the cross-Channel dialogue around painting – Sickert emulating Degas, say, or Roger Fry bringing the post-impressionists to London in 1910 and, in the view of Virginia Woolf, changing “human character”, or at least the ways of presenting it on canvas.

Now and again Barnes tries to resurrect the illusion that the 1885 shopping trip forms a narrative pivot, but like everything in the book it’s really just another sight on this whistle-stop causerie. In some ways, the book culminates in the First World War – Pozzi died in 1918 – and in the publication of Proust’s multi-volume portrait of the preceding decades. But the book appears to proffer no overarching thesis or connective thread, no chapter divisions, not even any order. And yet it’s never dull.

If the book has a raison d’être beyond a mild anti-Brexit subtext, it is Barnes’s repeated plea not to patronise the past – to recognise trailblazers such as Pozzi without chiding his contemporaries for failing to be more like “us” (“We know more and better, don’t we?”). So even if the book hardly qualifies as a work of history, it still delivers a message that all historians should heed.

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. At one point, Barnes observes a little wistfully that “these matters could, of course, be solved in a novel”. I, for one, am glad he decided not to wander down that path and produced instead this lovable mongrel of a book.

The Man in the Red Coat
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £18.99 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want