Three French Aesthetes and Rex’s Tortoise

The Times newspaper chooses a new book by novelist Julian Barnes as its “Book of the Week.” This is entitled The Man in the Red Coat and is a non-fiction account of three eccentric Frenchmen travelling in late Victorian Britain. The review by Sue Prideaux introduces them as:

… a prince, a count and a celebrity gynaecologist — [who] travelled to England for some “intellectual and decorative shopping”. […] Barnes in this digressive, wandering book […] finds much to admire — in the intellectual inquisitiveness, the creativity, its Europeaness.

It is the count, Robert de Montesquiou, who will be of primary interest to our readers. According to Prideaux:

A tortoise reputedly roamed Montesquiou’s flat, its shell gilded and studded with jewels. It died pretty quickly, for beauty, an exit that many decadents of the time recommended, beauty being the only thing worth dying for, although few followed their own advice. Montesquiou’s pet, incidentally, lives on in the diamond-studded tortoise that Rex gives Julia in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, where Jill Masterson doesn’t long survive being covered in gold paint.

Reading this book is like re-spooling Andy Warhol, or reading Nicholas Coleridge’s recently published The Glossy Years [see previous post] (Barnes was once Tatler’s restaurant critic). It’s top international tittle-tattle, awash with cantankerous snobbishness, reminding you that high society is always a pretty small fishpond whose fish sparkle as brightly as the jewelled shell of today’s tortoise — until tomorrow’s flashier reptile comes along.

It is not clear from the Times whether it is Prideaux or Barnes who makes the connections between the count’s tortoise and both Rex’s tortoise and Jill Masterson. Rex seems to be getting copious attention in the press these days, so the connection may come from the review rather than Barnes’s book. This would also seem to create a connection between Rex himself and Auric Goldfinger who share an admiration for cruelly decorated creatures.

After continuing through an account of the other two Frenchmen (especially the gynaecologist), the review closes with the conclusion that Barnes’s

sparkling and very enjoyable book has a serious subtext; no borders should be erected that hinder the flow of knowledge and ideas. Art and science are best served if we are free to travel the whole world to do our intellectual and decorative shopping.

Barnes’s book will be released in the UK on 7 November and will be published early next year in the USA.


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