"Bel-Ami" is hardly an original premise. How many books written through the years discuss the idea of a rural man heading to the city to make it big? That is exactly what happens with this book in the form of main character Georges Duroy. After a five-year stint in the French army, Duroy moves to Paris to make his fortune. Regrettably, Duroy is languishing in a lowly job as a railroad clerk until he meets his old army buddy Forestier. From this point forward, Georges is on the fast track to success. Forestier gets him a job at a scandal rag named "La Vie Francaise" where Georges rapidly ascends the ranks from lowly reporter to chief editor. Along the way, Duroy engages in all sorts of amorous adventures with women both high and low on the Paris social register. By the time the story ends, Georges is within sight of the highest positions in French society, all accomplished through sheer cunning and social maneuvering.
There are so many themes running through this sordid tale of the decadent Third Republic that it is impossible to adequately describe them all here. The introduction to this Penguin edition, written by translator Douglas Parmee, does a good job of showing how incidents in Maupassant's life appear in the character of Georges Duroy. The protagonist's rural background, his experience in France's North African expeditions, his work as a reporter and the subsequent expose of the seediness of journalism, the numerous affairs, the social positioning, and the philosophical musings on death are all expressions of Maupassant's personality and activities. I do hope, however, that Maupassant was not as big of a cad as Georges Duroy because this character may be one of the biggest jerks in the history of literature.
You cannot help but hate Duroy. He has little self-control except when he realizes that holding off on a conquest might mean self-advancement. Georges takes his mistress to the same theater where he picks up prostitutes, takes money from people without paying them back, corrupts women of high moral standards, sleeps with his boss's wife, seduces his boss's daughter, and physically assaults his mistress. There is just no way to sympathize with this guy, and the fact that he gains riches and fame is particularly galling to anyone with any sense of decency. But that is the message De Maupassant is trying to convey; that the complete decadence of French society during this time allows the likes of Duroy to succeed, and to succeed with a smile. Witness the scene towards the end of the book when Walter, Duroy's boss, grudgingly accedes his daughter to Georges's slimy scheme. "He will go far," says Walter, with more respect for Duroy's distasteful achievement than disdain for his lack of morals.
Another theme in the book, and one that runs through the pages like a 400-pound gorilla, is hypocrisy. The propensities for backstabbing, lying, and blatant disregard for self-realization in "Bel-Ami" is laugh out loud astonishing. These are shallow, manipulative people without a shred of decency, and Maupassant never passes up an opportunity to expose these despicable people. The hypocritical stance of the characters and situations often vie with powerfully descriptive passages of Paris and the French countryside, which are truly beautiful to read and have probably accounted for thousands of tourist trips to that country. The characters in "Bel-Ami" may be of no account morally, but they move and live in an environment of unsurpassed beauty.
Maupassant's knowledge of his own impending death weighs heavily in the story. Two sections highlight his musings on mortality: the monologue of the poet Norbert de Varenne and the death of Forestier. For the author, his slow deterioration from a disease made death a daily reality. What seemed to worry De Maupassant the most about death was not punishment from God but the idea of nothingness and being forgotten by the living. Of course, death makes no impression on Georges Duroy, who experiences only a moderate twinge over the passing of Forestier before making a play for that man's wife in order to improve his social position.
I am elated that I discovered this author. Guy De Maupassant is a brilliant writer whose early death robbed the world of a great talent. Although his short stories are considered some of the best ever written, do not pass by this novel. I have rarely seen an author who can write about mundane, daily situations with as much aplomb (see the scene about the fencing party as a prime example). De Maupassant's masterful abilities make this ordinary plot strikingly original and I will revisit this author again in the future. You should too.
This is one of my favorite books of all time. Read more