The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes

A portrait by John Singer Sargent: The man in the portrait is surgeon Samuel Pozzi. He lived in an age of medical breakthroughs, when many doctors were household names and their pictures were printed on trading cards. Pozzi was a physician to the rich and famous, the creative and the risible. Sargent painted them. You can follow Barnes’s story by following Sargent’s portraits of the principals, and by following their trading cards.

Talk about friends! Should I put the word “friends” in italics? If you could be socially backstabbed to death by your friends, the associates depicted in The Man in the Red Coat did it. We find ourselves in my favorite “cultural bridge” era, a historical period of shifting outlook. It’s the span roughly from 1880 to 1920, the age of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s monster. A decadent society, and that’s how they saw themselves. The following, among others, were cultural icons during this time period: Richard Wagner, Henry James, James McNeil Whistler, Sarah Bernhardt, and Marcel Proust.

In order to be somebody, you needed princes, princesses, dukes and duchesses among your acquaintances. It was an age of ambition. Wilde, who shines on every page he inhabits, wasn’t as modern as he thought he was. Foppish writer Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac wasn’t as talented as he thought he was. More people now read Wilde in a day than have read Montesquiou in a century.

So Montesquiou visits painter James McNeil Whistler in London and starts imitating his behavioral mannerisms. Then Montesquiou returns to Paris and meets Proust, who starts imitating Montesquiou imitating Whistler. I find this funny. It was an age of duels and dandies. And it led to us.

Julian Barnes has written a very personal, extended essay about the era. What I mean by “personal” is that the book can seem wayward at times, and eccentric, as Barnes goes off on some tangent, sometimes citing examples from the mid-twentieth century, sometimes digressing in a general way that risks veering off from his topic. There’s also a postscript referring to Britain’s “deluded, masochistic, departure from the European Union” that enriches the significance of The Man in the Red Coat. All this eloquent meandering bothered me at first, and I wondered, where is the editor? But then I decided I liked the informal digressions of a highly disciplined writer. This is, as I said, a very personal book. And Oscar Wilde would have loved it.