Julian Barnes: The Man in the Red Coat


Reviewed by Steffen Siegel

Whoever went shopping at one of the Félix Potin grocery stores, at the beginning of the 20th century, had a chance to take more at home than milk or baguettes. Between 1898 and 1922, the company issued hundreds of photographic pictures in a total of three series. This method of customer retention dates back to the mid-19th century. Invented by the Paris department store »Au Bon Marché«, it became popular in the decades to come. In Germany, especially the Liebig picture cards gained considerable popularity. However, Félix Potin's pictures were unique in two ways: firstly, they were photographs (whereas most comparable collections leaned on drawings), and secondly, they were dedicated exclusively to the celebrities of the time: politicians, scientists, actors, composers, writers, etc.

The recently published book »The Man in the Red Coat« by the British writer Julian Barnes already expresses in its title a strong interest in the visual arts, particularly in one painting: John Singer Sargent’s »Dr. Pozzi at Home from 1881, now in possession of the Armand Hammer Foundation in Los Angeles. Based on this marvelous portrait, Barnes drafts a biography of the famous French gynecologist Samuel Pozzi. A pioneer in his profession, he was, of course, part of the Collection Félix Potin. However, the doctor is only the anchor for a much larger story, and this is an utterly fascinating one: Barnes reconstructs the Parisian society of the Belle Époque: its web of personal relationships, the intrigues and duels, friendships and enmities, all being part of a world long gone.

To get an overview here, you may have to be an expert on this period –– or an avid reader of Marcel Proust’s »À la recherche du temps perdu« (which is a good idea in the first place). However, Barnes leans on another means to guide his readers. All these little pictures from the Collection Félix Potin are printed on the endpaper, and they are scattered throughout the text. The book is a meditation on the possibilities of portraiture and how––if possible––to make the past present. In those days, it was probably mainly children who chased after the small picture cards. Today, it is up to us to capture with these carte de visite portraits, at least mentally, a compelling epoch.

Julian Barnes: The Man in the Red Coat, New York (Alfred Knopf) 2020. 275 p., various illustrations.