Bookmarks: Brexit writ large, from gynaecology to gunshots

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Bookmarks: Brexit writ large, from gynaecology to gunshots

A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews

Andrew Donaldson

Julian Barnes first saw the full-length painting that would feature on the cover of his new book, The Man in the Red Coat (Jonathan Cape), at an exhibition in London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2015. He was struck by the rather decadent crimson dressing gown worn by its subject, an enigmatic-looking bearded man posing in front of burgundy velvet curtains. The painting, Dr Pozzi at Home, was by the US expatriate artist, John Singer Sargent, then based in Paris, and submitted in 1881 to the Royal Academy. The “man in the red coat” was Samuel Pozzi, a well-heeled dandy, a society surgeon and pioneering gynaecologist, and a notorious womaniser.

Barnes had never heard of him. This was despite his avid interest in the belle époque, the period in France of relative optimism, economic stability and regional peace from 1871 to 1914 during which the arts flourished, especially in Paris. But that initial curiosity has now resulted in what critics are describing as an enjoyably obsessive study of the doctor and the circle of artists, libertines and scandalously louche aesthetes in which he moved. Among them are characters who have appeared in Barnes’s previous novels and other work, including Proust, Flaubert, Maupassant and Sarah Bernhardt.

Pozzi was born in 1846, the son of a country pastor, and proved to be a brilliant medical student who specialised at first in gynaecology and later gunshot wounds (this at a time when duelling was apparently still a common occurrence). He operated on Bernhardt, removing an ovarian cyst from the actor which, he reported, was “the size of the head of a 14-year-old”. The two were lovers for a while afterwards, a common outcome for Pozzi’s women patients. ..

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