“The Man in the Red Coat,” by Julian Barnes

After a recent four-year traversal through “In Search of Lost Time” (I loved it), followed by a reading of William Carter’s 900-page Proust biography (very good), I figured I was through with Belle Époque Paris, Proust and all things Proustian for a while.

Not so. Because someone recommended Julian Barnes’ “The Man in the Red Coat.”

The man is Dr. Samuel Pozzi, and the red coat is the one he wears in John Singer Sargent’s elegant 1881 oil portrait, “Dr. Pozzi at Home.” Pozzi was a renowned surgeon (he was friends with the Mayo brothers, visited them in Rochester) and pioneer in gynecology. By all accounts, the cultured, popular Pozzi was kind and generous; a devoted family man; and a serial adulterer with famous mistresses, including actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Pozzi was a friend of the Proust family and knew Marcel personally. Barnes draws on this connection to present a discursive, gossipy panorama of this captivating period, pointing out that numerous persons in the Pozzi-Proust arena became memorable characters in Proust’s great novel, including Pozzi himself.

This is a great read, even if you’re not a Belle Époque Proustian. Magpie-like, the sly, observant Barnes snatches bits of glittery, alluring stuff from all over, turning it into a shimmering work that’s edifying, funny and a genuine pleasure to read.

L.K. Hanson, Minneapolis

 

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