Book Review: "The Man in the Red Coat" by Julian Barnes
5/5 - A decadent masterpiece and Barnes' magnum opus...
“The Man in the Red Coat” is possibly to this day, one of Julian Barnes’ greatest works. About the doctor, Samuel Pozzi, this book does not just tell us the autobiography of this man but also the surroundings, the people within his circles, the culture and the downfall of the fin-de-siecle belle epoch of France and England during this time. As someone who loves British and French decadent cultures, I got into this book very quickly as it starts off by simply giving us the surroundings, the atmosphere and the background of the novel and its non-fiction set up. The decadence is a bubbling pot of debauchery, drugs and intrigue. The courts and upper classes are filled with people who [as Barnes put it in a line of the book] are ‘ladies above scandal’. And yet, Barnes also tells us about how this culture was so set on its own self-serving patriarchy that there was absolutely no way it could have survived. It comes crashing down with the outbreak of the First World War.
Meanwhile, Barnes tells us the story of Samuel Pozzi, his training and his want to help people to better understand when and where surgery should and should not be used. A man who seems, on the surface, to have it all together. The deeper we go though the more of the image we get. Apart from the description of the painting that opens the book, we see his marriage is not all that great, his daughter is not all that happy, his friendships are not all that requited and his faith is not all that strong. Through torrid love affairs, turbulent duals in which men shoot firearms at each other and even through claims that he was seducing his own patients - this man is far more three dimensional than any biography of academia would have him made out to be. Perhaps Barnes was merely watching the picture - like in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” it has an edge of suffering about it, suffering which Pozzi had because of his failed marriage.
Quotations about Pozzi were merely to do with his life, but quotations about France, England and the cultural decadence of the entire movement itself was something to be admired and I believe that Julian Barnes has not written a better book since he penned “Arthur and George”. With characters apart from Samuel Pozzi being: Jean Lorraine, Marcel Proust, Montesquieu, Paul Verlaine, Henry James and even Oscar Wilde - this book’s cast of characters does not disappoint with its turbulence of the times mixed with the trials, the verdicts, the slanders and the society. It makes for brilliant reading and Barnes has done well to make the story as clear as possible to the reading audience.
About Oscar Wilde, he writes about Wilde’s thoughts on publicity, which are well documented but came back to, how do you put it…bite the author in the ass:
“Wilde also established another prime rule of fame in the modern age: that there is no such thing as bad publicity, there is only publicity. Success is better measured in column inches than by what those columns contain.”
Going through Oscar Wilde’s trials was something that I have to say was my favourite part of the whole book. Just to know what went on in that room, to hear the words that would have once been spoken by a cocky Oscar Wilde in his own defence until that defence unfortunately crumbled to the ground. Oscar Wilde treated the courtroom like a theatre - something that would be later imitated by the trials of OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson and even Oscar Pistorius. But the courtroom of Victorian England was in fact, very Victorian, and was not having any of it. Barnes writes about how the courtroom was dull, almost lifeless in its treatment of one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time - Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labour - he would die in Paris a few years after release.
Julian Barnes has written many books I have been fond of, but never have I ever read a book like this from him. I normally see his texts as almost satirical and clever of our own time, but something historical again, is something I have not witnessed since “Arthur and George” or “Flaubert’s Parrot”. I will have to say that this is my new favourite book by Julian Barnes, it is his best work yet and does not fail or falter in story or language in any way, shape or form. It is a perfect text.