- - Thursday, July 2, 2020

Was it truly beautiful, the Belle Epoque, as the period in France, and to some extent in England, between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and World War I is known. In his book, “The Man in the Red Coat,” Julian Barnes lays bare the elegance and superficiality of the period and its beau monde, the beautiful people.

The Belle Epoque, says Mr. Barnes, “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 was even a duel fought over how slim Sarah Bernhardt was when she played Hamlet.

It was “an age of neurotic even hysterical national anxiety, filled with political instability, crises and scandals.” But it was also a time of artistic, literary and scientific flowering.

The man in the red coat is Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi; the title derives from a portrait painted by John Singer Sargent, “Dr. Pozzi at Home,” in which Pozzi is posed elegantly in a full length red dressing gown with a touch of lace at the edges of the sleeves. Pozzi’s biography is the focal point of Mr. Barnes’ story.

The book begins with an “intellectual and decorative shopping” trip Pozzi, Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac and Prince Edmond de Polignac took to London in 1885 when Pozzi was 38 yeas old, a decade into his career as a doctor, surgeon and socialite, working in a public hospital while building up a fashionable private clientele.

The prince, a discreet homosexual, described by Marcel Proust as “a disused dungeon converted into a library,” had musical ambitions. He found happiness in a white marriage with Winnetta Singer, a lesbian heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. 

Montesquiou, also homosexual, was “a society figure, dandy, aesthete, connoisseur, quick wit and arbiter of fashion” who had literary ambitions. He was the model for Proust’s Baron Charlus in ”A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.”

Mr. Barnes describes Pozzi as a “highly intelligent, swiftly decisive, scientific rationalist.”

Born in Bergerac in Southwestern France, Pozzi’s progress into Parisian high society was “a triumph of intellect, character, ambition, professionalism … What is surprising, given the frenetic, rancorous, bitchy nature of the age, is how comparatively few enemies he made for much of his career.”

Pozzi’s specialty was gynecology, and he was the first to make gynecology a distinct category of medicine in France. He fostered antiseptic cleanliness; treated women with kindness and compassion; believed hospitals should be comfortable places and had frescoes painted on his hospital walls. He was a brilliant, innovative surgeon, specializing in abdominal and gynecological surgery. He was curious and eager to learn, interested in many subjects. He was an Anglophile and spoke fluent English. He was also “a Don Juan in a society where not all husbands were complaisant.”

Pozzi’s family life was not as successful as his professional one. His marriage to Catholic heiress Therese Loth-Cazalis was unhappy from the start. Therese insisted that her mother live with them. The couple had three children, and much of the tense family relationship comes from the diaries of daughter Catherine, who both hated and adored her father. After 30 years of marriage, Therese sought a separation. A divorce was out of the question.

Pozzi was handsome and charming. His many liaisons included Sarah Bernhardt — she called him “Docteur Dieu” (Dr.God) — who remained his life-long friend. Some of his mistresses were his patients. When he met Emma Fischhof in 1890, both were married and neither ever divorced. She remained his mistress and companion for the rest of his life, which was cut short by a former patient’s bullet in 1918.

The book is peopled with names both famous and forgotten. Oscar Wilde flits in and out; Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valery, Georges Clemenceau are present. It is a book of gossip, much of it poisonous. Perhaps the nastiest was Jean Lorrain, “a dandy, poet, novelist, playwright, reviewer, chronicler … scandal-monger, rumor-driver, etheromaniac and duellist … someone you half want to keep out of your book, for fear he might take over too much of it,” comments Mr. Barnes. Throughout are illustrations of the people discussed, tiny photographs from the collections of Felix Potin, who founded a mass-distribution retail grocery business in Paris,

The Belle Epoque may not have been the best or the worst of times, but Mr. Barnes has infused the era and Pozzi’s life with fascinating details, presented in the author’s elegant, somewhat caustic style. He reminds us that “one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language” is “we cannot know.”

What we can know is that the beautiful era had blemishes and that Dr. Samuel Pozzi, this “sane man in a demented age,” was truly extraordinary and someone I, for one, would have liked to have known.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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By Julian Barnes

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 265 pages

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