Julian Barnes Observes the Belle Epoque
With how fast history tends to move forward these days, we’ve had to constantly redefine what we consider to be the deep past. While in ancient times dozens, if not hundreds of years could go by without many major life-changing inventions, these days we’d be hard-pressed to find a decade which didn’t carry with it some world-altering consequences.
As such, our tendency to examine our historical past is becoming increasingly limited in terms of the time frame we’re willing to travel, which is a shame considering how much we could really learn from ourselves, as Julian Barnes so adeptly demonstrates it The Man in the Red Coat.
Transporting us to Europe in 1870, this rather unusual book primarily follows the biography of Samuel Pozzi, a pioneering surgeon and groundbreaking gynecologist of his time, as he visits London on an intellectual shopping spree of sorts, along with two other Parisians, a prince and a count.
Though all three might be linked in terms of social standing and personal wealth, what truly unites them is their philosophy, their strong rejection of modernism and their pull towards bohemian circles.
From this simple premise, of a prince, a count and a commoner going shopping in London, the narrative expands widely, jumping from France to England, and even to America sometimes, introducing us to many historical personalities whose fame kept them alive to this very day, as well as some of the more forgotten ones.
Through all these people, the things they achieved, the societies they lived in and the events they went through, we are presented with as wide and informative a tableau as the author can manage of the Belle Epoque, which ultimately may not have been all too beautiful.
A Unique Blend of Fact and Fiction in The Man in the Red Coat
To begin with, I think it’s important to discuss the uniqueness of this book which sets it apart the majority of works in the domain of biographical and historical works. While mixing reality and fantasy isn’t something inherently new, I found the way Barnes does it here to be fairly intriguing, though I do have the feeling it can definitely provoke some mixed reactions.
He uses factual accounts from the time period to describe people, locales and events, but at the same time he extrapolates quite deeply whenever there are holes to be filled.
I would say he takes more than a few liberties when getting inside the minds and heads of the characters he is presenting, and they were sufficient, for me at least, to serve as reminders I wasn’t reading a historical account in the end, but a novel.
There are even a few cases here and there where it was obvious the author was injecting his own personal political opinions into the characters, and whether or not you agree with them, they did detract from the immersion of the story.
I could understand why this would turn some people off a historical novel, since they are generally read to dive into the deep past rather than worrying about the present. Nevertheless, if like myself you aren’t too bothered by this element or you’re simply willing to look past it, then the book really begins to shine in its vivid depiction of the Belle Epoque, and the parallels we can draw between it and our own modern times.
In other words, Barnes doesn’t simply insert his fiction for his own personal amusement, but is instead trying to communicate ideas and complement the factual knowledge history has left us with.
The Rewarding Challenge of the Narration
As you would expect, this novel’s uniqueness doesn’t stop there, and perhaps the most challenging part of it is the narration. Though it starts off fairly cohesively, it doesn’t take long for us to start jumping back and forth between countries and characters in a sort of exposition which doesn’t lend itself to a cohesive narrative.
Essentially, we are going through multiple biographies, some in greater depth than others, in an attempt to get as complete a picture as possible of the time period.
Once again, I can understand how this type of narrative structure would be enough to chase some people away, but personally, I would urge you to make an effort and get past this complexity, for the rewards are well worth it.
I will be the first to admit not to be very familiar with the Belle Epoque, largely having passing knowledge of the most prominent figures and events which marked it, so I probably can’t adequately rate the wealth of knowledge we’re given here, but it feels perfect as an in-depth introduction to the topic.
Despite being rather complex and expansive in its ambitions, the book does top out at just under three hundred pages, and no matter how concise and precise of an writer one might be, I think it’s impossible to profoundly survey any historical time period to a profound degree.
So, if like me you haven’t studied this period in depth, then what you’ll get rewarded with for navigating the complex narrative is one of the most evocative portrayals of any time period I’ve ever witnessed, one which also pushes us to think about the modern world and ask ourselves how much we’ve really progressed in the past hundred years.
The Final Verdict
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes is certainly not your run-of-the-mill historical book, and offers a rather unique mixture of a strong and extensive factual foundation combined with imaginary extrapolations, at times personal and even political, and at other times just thought-provoking.
If you have any interest in history and the Belle Epoque in France, then I would strongly recommend you give this book a try. Despite its few faults and unusual characteristics, I believe it’s all well-worth it.
Julian Patrick Barnes
Julian Patrick Barnes is an English writer and winner of the Man Booker Prize for his 2011 book, The Sense of an Ending. Some of his other works were also shortlisted for the prize in years prior, including Arthur & George, England, England, and Flaubert’s Parrot.
Additionally, in 2004 he became the Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and has earned various honours including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.