Watching a portrait may be misleading or may prompt you to know more about the person depicted… We are very lucky that Julian Barnes pondered about a portrait at the National Gallery of Washington DC… and in a cosmopolitan embrace masterly orchestrated by this British (not English) genius, we are transported to the Belle Époque mostly in Paris. In this sense, Julian Barnes, who mourns over Brexit, accomplishes a European masterpiece.
As a devoted Proustian and Wildean, I had positively every reason to hate a book that makes two of my favourite authors pitiful in many ways… obviously, Barnes is more annoyed at Oscar Wilde than at Marcel Proust. Yet, the latter is only spared as an artist and is revealed as what we all suspected at least, the journalist who sought by any means the friendship and favour of the Gotha. However, he also comes out as the son of a famous doctor and surgeon who whose name is associated with surgical a major surgical operation, the Prostatectomy… or Proustatectomy as it was then nicknamed ! In this way, Barnes is actually casting a bit more light on Adrien, Proust’s rather obscure father in La Recherche.
Reading the Man in the Red Coat was the perfect transition for me from confinement to returning to the world of art and culture which is the object of another post I’m still working upon.
I was advised to read it by my friend Mimi who hadn’t read it at the time. These were the first two books I ordered towards the end of confinement and the other one was Hilary Mantel’s The mirror and the Light.
Needless to say, I immediately started Mantel’s book as I had long been waiting for it. It is definitely a third Booker prize for this incredible author who manages to respect an authentic English language and atmosphere of 16th century England while depicting each character as if she had known them personally!
I don’t think I read anything else by Julian Barnes prior to the Man in the Red Coat, but I believe I shall endeavour to seek out everything else he wrote as I absolutely delighted at his style, his wit and the numerous savoury anecdotes which kept me from wanting to finish it as I immersed with ravishment in the atmosphere and characters of la Belle Époque.
The Man in the Red Coat is actually Dr. Samuel Pozzi, a famous gynaecologist and surgeon, a highly considered scientist who had among his assistants Proust’s father, Adrien Proust…
Pozzi is a kind of fil rouge relating the characters and events descriptions of La Recherche, yet he is far more than that as he was a Don Juan, a politician who supported Dreyfus and a humanist celebrated worldwide.
Together with Pozzi, le Prince de Polignac and Robert de Montesquiou are the entrances into the Belle Époque Society in its various facettes from grassroots to the highest nobility and from mere anecdotes to History as well as a deep reflection on literature and the art and traps of biography.
Illustrated by great portraits by the most famous painters and photographers of the time such as John Singer Sargent (who portrayed Pozzi as The Man in the Red Coat), Giovanni Boldini, Paul Nader, Charles Émile Auguste Carolus-Duran, James McNeill Whistler… and Felix Potin’s vignettes of the various people described.
I revelled at every page of a book which traveled with me for two months but which I read extremely slowly to delay the cruel present instant of turning its final page.
As usual, I leave you with my personal notes which will be found in my bibliography as well.
Julian Barnes, The Man in the Red Coat. London: Jonathan Cape, 2019.
p. 2: Art outlasts individual whim, family pride, society’s orthodoxy; art always has time on its side.(Mais p.104): What I said at the beginning – that art always has time on its side – was mere hopefulness, and sentiment delusion. Some art has time on its side; but which? Time imposes a brutal triage.
39: Part of the novelist’s job is to turn a slight, even false rumour into glitteringly certain reality; and it is often the case that the less you have, the easier it is to make something from it.
104: Nothing dates like excess.112: “We cannot know “. If used sparingly, this is one of the strongest phrases in the biographers language. It reminds us that the suave study-of-a-life we are reading, for all its details, links and footnotes, for all its factual certainties and confident hypotheses, can only be a public version of a public life, and a partial version of a private life. Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string, and nowhere more so than with the sexual and amatory life.
119: Whistler to Montesquiou while painting Arrangement in black and gold (1891-92)“Look at me again for a moment and you will look at yourself forever. “
125:(…) But as Montesquiou knew much better than Polignac, a friendship is only a stage on the way to a quarrel.
135: The Belle Époque was a time of vast wealth for the wealthy, of social power for the aristocracy, of uncontrolled and intricate snobbery, of headlong colonial ambition, of artistic patronage, and of duels whose scale of violence often reflected personal irascibility more than offended honour. There wasn’t much to be said for the First World War, but at least it swept a lot of this away.
138: But America was coming to France. In some ways it was already there, in the shape of John Singer Sargent and Henry James and Edith Wharton; of Mary Cassatt, who was helping American millionaires back home buy our impressionist paintings before their French and British equivalents woke up; in the shape of transatlantic heiresses brought over to shore up impoverished aristocratic houses; and of zealous and fashionable lesbians like Winnaretta Singer and Natalie Barney and Romain Brooks.
140-142: in America (Wilde) was to become famous by being inflated into the figure of “Oscar Wilde“. It is a moment when a shift in the nature of literary fame occurs. Previously, a famous writer was a writer who became famous by writing. Wilde pioneered The idea of becoming famous first, and then getting down to the writing. (…) Wilde also established another prime rule of fame in the modern age: that there is no such thing as bad publicity, there is only the publicity. (…) Yet the price of fame is really a simple transaction. If Wilde was treated in France as an upper-class English man, in America he was merely an Irish man – indeed a no status Paddy. Furthermore in a weird crossover of cast stereotyping, he was caricatured as being black as much as Irish..It came as a shock to the Oxford double first to be drawn as a gangly African American youth brandishing a sunflower.
166: My first encounter with Dr Pozzi was in the form of his tremendous image by Sargent. The wall label told me that he was a gynaecologist. I hadn’t previously come across him in my 19th-century French reading. Then I saw in an art magazine that he was “not only the father of French gynaecology but also a confirmed sex addict who routinely attempted to seduce his female patients“. I was intrigued by such an apparent paradox: the doctor who helps women but also exploits them.
167: Pozzi makes it into the diaries and letters of the time, as a surgeon, society figure and collector; but even Edmond de Goncourt, whose journal is as good a guide to sexual habits (and sexual gossip) as we have, notes only minor evidence for possible affairs.
168: so I became less interested in Pozzi the amorist, and more importantly the fraught family man, Pozzi the ever curious doctor, Pozzi the traveller, Pozzi the urban figure (Pozzi the snob?), Pozzi the international list, the rationalist, the Darwinist, the scientist, the Modernist. Pozzi the man who never lost a friend (unless they were anti- Dreyfusard). Pozzi a sane man in a demented age.
192-3: it was hard to pierce Robert de Montesquiou’s carapace- and he wouldn’t have wanted you to. He was perhaps at heart and melancholic: he like to say that his mother had “given me the sad present of life“. His restlessness and furious inquisitiveness might have been a response to this. He was vain without being especially self-reflective, one of those who, rather than look inside to discover who they are, prefer to see themselves in the reflections that come back from others.
195: Pozzi was everywhere (note de DRM, sorte de refrain qui rythme tout le roman…)(…) When Grégori ( who tried to kill Dreyfus during Zola’s funeral ceremony at the Pantheon) was brought to trial, French justice showed itself at its Frenchest. Gregori’s lawyer argued that his client had not actually been shooting at Dreyfus the man, but rather at “the idea of Dreyfussism“. Astonishingly, the assize court of the Seine accepted this argument, and Gregory was acquitted. Six years later, Jaurès was assassinated; his assailant was also acquitted. French justice was always more open to abstract ideas than British justice.
199:(…) writers in person routinely failed to satisfy or gratify a reader’s expectations (…)
205-6: An artist paints a likeness, or a version, or an interpretation, which celebrates the sitter during life, commemorates him or her after death, and perhaps sparks curiosity in the spectator centuries and more later. This sounds straightforward, and sometimes it is. I was drawn to Dr Pozzi by the Sargent portrait, became curious about his life and work, wrote this book, and still find the picture a true and dashing likeness. But it doesn’t take much for this collusion between dead painter, dead subject and live spectator to go wrong.(allusion au misleading portrait de Louis Bertin par Ingres (1832) au Louvre).
208: (Quoting Wilde’s Basil Hallward): “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.”
209: in any case, Hallward’s contention is undermined by the very novel in which he (and Wilde) make that claim. Because the plain picture of Dorian Gray is, as everyone agrees, a compellingly accurate physical representation of the titular young man. And further – which is what drives the plot – it turns out to be a compellingly moral representation as well, in his increasing degradation.(more on epigrams and Oscar Wilde page 210).
213-4: to blood-and-soil Patriots, (…) Pozzi could pretty much be considered an open “ruthless cosmopolitan“ himself. He had had a long affair with the Jewish nymphomaniac Sarah Bernhardt. For the past decade he had further flaunted his philosemitism by humiliating his wife and parading his mistress-his Jewish, married mistress-across the fashionable cities of Europe.
229: (about Montesquiou as Charlus and Pozzi as Cottard) There can be a trainspotter side to this aspect of Proust -reading. It ought to be the case that the greater the novelist, the more powerful characters he or she creates, the more real and vivid they stand in our imagination and memory, the less we ought to be interested in the paler figures who once trod the earth and from whom these enduring characters might in some way have sprung. But “ought” works no more in literature than it does in history.
230: There were, the Count realised, worse fates to attend one after death than to be taken for a major character in a masterpiece. At his last public appearance, in December 1920, he observed ruefully, “I ought to start calling myself Montesproust. And after all, he had never wanted to be liked.
250: – whether, if Fashoda had not been experienced as a moment national humiliation in the mind of the infant Charles de Gaulle, Britain would have been allowed to join the European project launch earlier, would have become fully committed and embedded, and would not have voted to leave in 2016. All these matters could, of course, be solved in a novel.
265: (authors note)“Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance.” I was writing this book during the last year or so before Britain’s deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union. And Dr. Pozzi’s maxim came frequently to mind as the English political elite, unable to imagine themselves into the minds of Europeans (or unwilling to do so, or too stupid to do so), repeatedly behaved as if what they themselves wanted, and what was going to happen, were likely to be the same thing. The English (rather than the British) have often branded themselves too smugly on being insular, and being incurious about “the other“(…)
225-266: there are many reasons for being dismayed at current English (not British-English) attitudes to Europe. I am the son of language teachers, both of whom would have been saddened at the decline in the study and teaching of modern languages in the time since their deaths. “Oh, they all speak English nowadays“ is often heard complacency. But as any teacher or student of languages knows, to understand a foreign language is to understand those who speak it; and further to understand the way they look at and understand your country. It loosens up the imagination. So we are no understanding others less well, why they continue to understand us better. Another miserable piece of isolation. (…) JB. May 2019.