Julian Barnes' new book is about Samuel Pozzi, a well-heeled dandy, a society surgeon and pioneering gynaecologist, and a notorious womaniser. Picture: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
Julian Barnes' new book is about Samuel Pozzi, a well-heeled dandy, a society surgeon and pioneering gynaecologist, and a notorious womaniser. Picture: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES

Julian Barnes first saw the full-length painting that would feature on the cover of his new book, The Man in the Red Coat (Jonathan Cape), at an exhibition in London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2015.

He was struck, he admits, by the rather decadent crimson dressing gown worn by its subject, an enigmatic-looking bearded man posing in front of burgundy velvet curtains.

The painting, Dr Pozzi at Home, was by the American expatriate artist, John Singer Sargent, then based in Paris, and submitted in 1881 to the Royal Academy. The “man in the red coat” was Samuel Pozzi, a well-heeled dandy, a society surgeon and pioneering gynaecologist, and a notorious womaniser.

Barnes had never heard of him. This despite his avid interest in the Belle Époque, the period in France of relative optimism, economic stability and regional peace from 1871 to 1914 during which the arts flourished, especially in Paris.

But that initial curiosity has now resulted in what critics are describing as an enjoyably obsessive study of the doctor and the circle of artists, libertines and scandalously louche aesthetes in which he moved. Among them, of course, are several characters that have appeared in Barnes’s previous novels and other work, including Proust, Flaubert, Maupassant and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes. Picture: SUPPLIED

Pozzi was born in 1846, the son of a country pastor, and proved to be a brilliant medical student who specialised at first in gynaecology and later gunshot wounds (this at a time when duelling was apparently still a common occurrence).

He operated on Bernhardt, removing an ovarian cyst from the actress which, he reported, was “the size of the head of a 14-year-old”. The two were lovers for a while afterwards, a common outcome for Pozzi’s women patients.

In 1879, Pozzi married the heiress of a railway magnate and, with his wife’s money, bought a palatial home in Paris’s Place Vendôme that was frequented by writers, artists and other society figures. The couple had three children, the eldest of whom, Catherine, was a compulsive diarist whose journals — in which she detailed her parents’ unhappy marriage and her father’s countless, often flagrantly-conducted infidelities — provided Barnes with much valuable material.

But The Man in the Red Coat is more than mere tittle-tattle or a depiction, as the Times of London put it, of “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”.

No, this is a book about Brexit. For Pozzi’s life is set against a backdrop of political volatility; France, at the end of the 19th century, was riven by a rise in “blood and soil nativism” that had been stoked by crude propaganda against foreign influence.

“That despised ‘metropolitan elite’,” critic Tim Adams writes in The Observer, “found its most dandified expression in Pozzi’s circle. The fault line was the Dreyfus case, which exposed a vicious culture war between conservative Catholic nationalists and the freer-thinking, looser-living European liberals of the cities. The battle of ideas was characterised by fake news, confrontation between opinion writers and occasional violence and riot. Pozzi, of Italian heritage, a subtle linguist, amused anglophile and atheist, was a natural Dreyfusard, sitting alongside Sarah Bernhardt at the trials.”

Last week, Barnes told The Guardian: “When I first saw [the painting] I didn’t think he was anything to do with us here now.” Research, however, revealed the “unavoidable” parallels: “Extreme nationalism, nativism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia: they were very lurid times and we have very lurid times now.”

As Pozzi himself put it, “Chauvinism is a form of ignorance.” 

The good doctor, it must be said, met with a perhaps fitting end. He had operated on a tax collector, Maurice Machu, who had been rendered impotent by varicose veins in his scrotum. The procedure was not a success and, blaming Pozzi for his continued impotence, Machu later shot him dead in his consulting rooms on June 3, 1918.

That a notorious Don Juan had been killed by an impotent man was the source of much society amusement, and as Pozzi’s funeral procession passed the Arc de Triomphe it was whispered that he had deliberately rendered Machu impotent so he could service his wife.