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Samuel Pozzi: The must-have gynaecologist of the ‘Belle Époque’ 

Cutting a dash: Sargent’s Dr Pozzi at Home, 1881
Cutting a dash: Sargent’s Dr Pozzi at Home, 1881 Credit:  HULTON ARCHIVE

Noel Malcolm reviews, The Man in the Red Coat, Julian Barnes's new non-fiction book, about a brilliant surgeon in anarchic 19th-century France 

What a violent place France was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries! In 1892, an anarchist lobbed a nail-bomb into the French Parliament, injuring 52 deputies; two years later the President himself was stabbed to death by another anarchist in Lyon. And both sides could play at this game: a Right-wing nationalist assassinated the French Socialist leader Jaurès just before the First World War. 

Politicians’ wives were no less trigger-happy. In one case a loyal spouse, keen to defend the honour of her husband against attacks in the press, walked into a newspaper office and shot the presumed editor (in fact, an innocent sub-editor) six times in the abdomen. Most famously, in 1914 the wife of the then Finance Minister performed a similar marital service by gunning down the editor of Le Figaro.

Duelling, abandoned in England, was still going strong in France, so administering death by pistol-shot at 40 paces retained its social cachet. And because it was a citizen’s right (established by the Revolution) to own a gun, bullets were used to settle many ordinary scores. Several prominent doctors were shot at close range by patients dissatisfied with the treatment they had received.

Samuel Pozzi, the hero of Julian Barnes’s new book, was a very famous doctor, and I hope it will not be counted a “spoiler” to say that he did not die peacefully in his bed. He was a brilliant surgeon, just the man you wanted for gunshot wounds, and his vigorous promotion of the latest scientific methods – above all, careful antisepsis before, during and after an operation – saved innumerable lives. But he was best known as a gynaecologist; the treatise he wrote on that subject was a medical bestseller which, translated into many languages, transformed practice around the world.

Now, if you had told me a while ago that the next book by this famous novelist would be a work of non-fiction about a 19th-century gynaecologist, I would have found it hard to believe. A medical biography? Well, no, it isn’t that. In fact it isn’t a biography at all, though we do learn quite a lot about Pozzi’s life. Rather, it is a cultural-historical-social exploration of that “Belle Époque” period. Pozzi, though interesting in his own right, is the device that holds together a mass of fascinating mini-essays and vignettes on everything from medical science to art, violence, dandyism and sexual behaviour, taking in a galère of literary figures including louche journalists, dilettante poets, Maupassant, Colette and Proust.

Pissarro’s Avenue de l’Opéra, Paris, 1898 Credit:  Photo Josse/Leemage

Pozzi is ideal for this purpose because he knew everybody, and was universally liked. Handsome, intelligent, dynamic, and suave in a non-calculating sort of way, he was the must-have gynaecologist for nervous duchesses, but also the perfect drinking companion and confidant for their husbands – and for literary men, artists and politicians. And his amorous conquests (which, contrary to malicious rumour, did not begin in the consulting room) were many, including the beautiful widow of the composer Bizet, and the most famous actress in the world, Sarah Bernhardt.

Without this connecting figure, it might be hard to see what links together the multiplicity of topics that Barnes discusses in this book. Yet there is an underlying unity of context. Parisian society (and it is really not France he describes, but Paris – he quotes the historian Douglas Johnson’s wonderful description of Paris as “only the outskirts of France”) was, in this period, a hothouse world, with a remorseless cult of celebrity. Everything seems to have contributed to this, from the gutter press, with its hectic scandals, to the grand salons, where aristocrats turned snobbery into a performance art. Duelling, too, reflected an obsession with honour, fame and gossip.

Oddly enough, if there was one person who did not exhibit this mania for impressing other people, it was Pozzi. He improved medical methods not to become famous, but to save lives; he collected fine paintings because he loved them, not to compete with rival connoisseurs; and when he took a long-term mistress he managed to be neither secretive about her nor ostentatious. It is his calm self-assurance that shines through in the great painting of him by Sargent, Dr Pozzi at Home, which first sparked Julian Barnes’s interest in the man, and gave him the title of this marvellously rich and thought-provoking book.

Almost all the thoughts it provokes are positive; but here are a few on the other side. Barnes is a fine stylist, albeit rather too conscious of his own stylishness. The price he pays for this, however, is that the reader becomes sensitised to any little lapses or verbal tics. The adverb “Frenchly” is fun the first time one reads it, but wearying the next couple of times, especially when followed by “Englishly” (once) and “transatlantically” (twice).

Barnes devotes several rather laborious pages to wrestling with the fact that real people in the past are not like characters in a novel; there are certain things about them which, he tells us – as if noticing the difference between history and fiction for the first time – we cannot know. Meanwhile he fails to give us details that could easily be supplied. This is a book with no notes or references, so the sources of his wonderful facts and anecdotes remain totally obscure. There is something self-indulgent about this: oh well, footnotes are too much like hard work, so let’s just write it in the style of a novel anyway.

But the most unnecessary self-indulgence comes in the final pages, where we are treated to an irrelevant rant against “Britain’s deluded, masochistic departure from the EU”. The words “chauvinism”, “insular” and “smug” are tossed around, and the suggestion is made that this disastrous development is the result of not enough people learning French and acquiring (Barnesically) a European literary culture.

It’s depressing to find that, three years after the event, such a clever person has still not bothered to find out why people voted Leave. I did not vote for Brexit out of a dislike of French novels, or out of a failure to learn European languages, or out of any kind of “chauvinism”; I just wanted to live in a normal representative democracy. If liking Flaubert and Proust means that you are obliged to put yourself under a partly French supranational government, God help those of us who also like American films, Chinese porcelain and Russian music.

Order The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes for £9.99 through the Telegraph bookshop