Julian Barnes
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The Man in the Red Coat was Dr Samuel Pozzi (1846-1918). In the English-speaking world he is mainly famous for having been painted in 1881, as 'Dr Pozzi at Home', in a long crimson dressing gown by John Singer Sargent. This arresting portrait – one of the best that Sargent ever painted - is now in the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Given that Dr Pozzi could afford to be painted by Sargent, one might infer that he was a very successful medical man. That was the case: he was a pioneer in the use of antiseptics and anaesthetics, the father of modern gynaecology and the preferred physician and surgeon of France's elite, although he also served the poor in Paris's public hospitals and twice served his country as a surgeon in the French Army Medical Corps in 1870-71 and again in 1914-18. In addition to all the foregoing, he was an anthropologist and neurologist.
Pozzi was much more than a brilliant doctor, however. Having married money and made more in the course of his practice, he was an art collector, traveller and sought-after dinner guest. He was famously charming and, according to one of his numerous female admirers, 'disgustingly handsome'. He seems to have known and been on friendly terms with almost everybody who mattered on both sides of the Channel and not a few Americans, such as Henry James. The friends included Sir James Young Simpson, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust (and his father and brother, both eminent doctors), Louis Pasteur, Count de Montesquiou, Richard Wagner... a roll-call of the great, the good and the bad of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pozzi shot game at Rambouillet with the President of the Republic and the Prince of Monaco. Pozzi had beautiful mistresses, of whom the great actress Sarah Bernhardt was the most famous. He operated on her twice, to remove an ovarian cyst and to amputate a leg. She called him 'docteur Dieu'; 'Dr God'. Pozzi was murdered in 1918.

This book delivers more than the title or the cover blurb suggest; it is not just a biography. The Man in the Red Coat is also the portrait of an age, known in France as la belle epoque – the beautiful era – which lasted roughly from 1871 until the First World War. It was the heroic age of French medicine; the period of the Impressionist painters and musicians, of Degas, Monet, Chabrier and Debussy; of France's supremacy in art and taste; it was the age that Proust was to immortalise in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. It was also the age of the Dreyfus scandal, the Felix Faure scandal and General Boulanger's attempted coup d'etat, when the French Government lurched from crisis to crisis. The memory of France's ignominious defeat by Prussia and her allies in 1870 was ever-present. In Paris's Place de la Concorde, which is lined with statues of Roman-looking ladies, who represent the principal cities of France, the statue of Strasbourg - lost to Germany in 1870- was veiled dramatically in black; sooner or later there would be another, even bloodier, conflict. Neatly book-ended by two horrible wars, this elegant age of glamour and pleasure had an ugly side: hysterical, narcissistic, decadent, violent; given to political extremism, rampant prejudice and blood-and-soil nationalism.

I learned a lot from The Man in the Red Coat but will quote here only one example: the Fashoda incident of 1896. Briefly, while the British were re-conquering the Sudan from the Khalifa, a French expedition, most of whom were Senegalese soldiers, set off from Gabon to raise the Tricolour in Southern Sudan. The leader was Colonel Jean-Baptiste Marchand. The base that he chose was the abandoned fort of Fashoda. The aim seems to have been to create a corridor of French territory linking Djibouti with Chad and French Equatorial Africa. Fashoda is a ghastly and obscure little place, but Great Britain and France almost went to war over it.

Marchand's incursion into a British sphere of influence was a challenge that Britain could hardly ignore. Kitchener was instructed to expel Marchand as tactfully as possible. This he did, arriving with a much larger force. The Union Jack was not displayed, only the Egyptian flag; Kitchener protested in the name of the Khedive, not of Queen Victoria; he wore Egyptian uniform; the negotiations were conducted in French, which Kitchener spoke fluently. On a personal level Kitchener and Marchand seem to have got on well; when he withdrew, Marchand gave Kitchener some crates of wine. He then marched off to Djibouti and eventually returned to a hero's welcome in France. He also received a ceremonial sword with ancient Egyptian decorative motifs, which remained in his family until quite recently.

British people soon forgot Fashoda. In France, by contrast, a storm of anti-British hysteria arose when the news of Marchand's removal broke: Fashoda was seen as a key moment of national humiliation and dishonour. The fact that France had created the situation and that the outcome was easily predictable was of course overlooked. What I had not known was that the fiasco made an enormous impact on an eight-year-old French schoolboy, who in later years remembered it as a 'childhood tragedy'. That schoolboy was Charles de Gaulle. Fashoda goes a long way towards explaining his Anglophobia: both his obstreperous and infuriating (translate into French as 'determined and patriotic') behaviour in wartime London, then later in his stubborn ('principled and statesmanlike') triple refusal to allow the UK to join ('disrupt') the Common Market! A lot of things become clearer when you read The Man in the Red Coat.

Julian Barnes has written thirteen novels, including The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. He has also written short stories, essays and non-fiction.

Metellus Cimber II

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