Time for some classic French literature! I first read Guy de Maupassant while still in Russia, and the worn-out collection of his short stories was one of the few books I took with us when we emigrated to Australia. In addition to being one of the greatest short story writers of all time, during his tragically brief time on earth (42 years to be exact) Maupassant also penned a few novels, which I never got around to reading in either language. Published in 1885, Bel-Ami is his second novel. I still think that Maupassant’s short stories are the best display of his strengths as a writer, but I very much enjoyed this book.
Bel-Ami of the title is Georges Duroy, a handsome young man who arrives in Paris penniless and without prospects. At this stage in the story, it’s easy to feel sympathy for him as he’s forced to count every coin and choose between having dinner today or lunch the next day. Through a chance encounter with an old army comrade, Duroy lands a job as a journalist on the newspaper La Vie francaise. This lucky break that pulls him out of the poverty is soon forgotten, as Duroy begins to covet greater wealth and influence and is determined to climb the social ladder, using his wit, cunning, and, above all, his phenomenal success with rich and powerful women.
Nothing is ever enough for Duroy and every new achievement only serves to stoke the flames of envy and greed. Bel-Ami, a nickname bestowed on him by the daughter of his mistress, translates to something like “beautiful friend”, but it’s deceptive: Duroy’s beauty is skin-deep and he’s a friend to no one but himself.
Though written more than hundred and thirty years ago, the novel feels strikingly modern, with its straightforward language and the cynical mix of ambition, sex, money, corrupt journalists and sleazy politicians. In a way it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, in that it depicts the rise and rise of its amoral protagonist as a sort of comedic romp, without moralising or lecturing but rather from a neutral stance. Maupassant has a great knack for observing the everyday interactions and puncturing the hypocrisy and pomposity of the bourgeois society.
Maupassant’s beautifully economical language, used to an amazing effect in his short stories, maybe predictably doesn’t hit with the same punch over the length of a novel. However his vivid descriptions of Paris in the belle epoque, which I had loved in the short stories, are just as evocative here. As rotten as many of the human beings in the novel are, it still celebrates life and its sensual pleasures, taking the reader inside the excitement of Folies Bergère and the lovingly described countryside around Rouen (between Maupassant and Flaubert, Rouen for me had become one of those cities that live in your imagination long before you visit them in real life).
Georges Duroy, a rake and a narcissist with no regard for the feelings of others, is a fascinating creation, but the novel’s female characters, their different relationships with Duroy and the shifting power dynamics are also memorable. Also, though the descriptions of sex are never explicit, they’re rather racier than what you’d expect from a 19th-century novel.