Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”There are many women who would give way to a passing whim, a sudden violent desire or an amorous fancy if they weren’t afraid that their brief moment of happiness would end in a dreadful scandal and bitter tears.”
Georges Duroy comes from the provinces of France to Paris with the determination to make something of himself. He finds a job making a pittance, but fortunately he runs into an old friend from the army named Charles Forestier. Even though Duroy has no real writing experience, Forestier decides to get him hired on at La Vie Francaise as a journalist. He wants Duroy to write about some of his experiences in the army, but the cursed white page that plagues even the most experienced writers is consuming his words before he can even dip his pen to paper.
Forestier sends Duroy to his wife Madeleine. She will get him sorted. It doesn’t take long for Duroy to realize who in the Forestier family is doing most of the writing. As he starts to mix in the circles surrounding the newspaper, he starts to see the potential for not only continuing to better his position but also the plethora of opportunities to seduce other men’s wives.
He is a handsome rake.
”He had a fund of small talk, a pleasant voice, a caressing glance and his moustache was irresistible. Crisp and curly, it curved charmingly over his lip, fair with auburn tints, slightly paler where it bristled at the ends.”
It isn’t long before the women, and even the men, are referring to him as Bel-Ami.
As he gains confidence, he also becomes bolder. His first conquest is Madame Clotilde de Marelle.
”’I’ve never seen such pretty earrings as yours, Madame de Marelle.’
She turned to him with a smile.
‘It’s an idea I had to fasten a diamond like that, simply on the end of a wire. They look just like dew, don’t they?’
Alarmed at his temerity and terrified of saying something silly, he murmured:
‘It’s charming...but the ear must take some of the credit, too.’”
Her ample bosom first catches his eye, but of course, only a low class lout would compliment a woman’s breasts. By showing an interest in her earrings, he unknowingly hits upon something of which she is proud, her creativity. As you will see when you read this novel, Duroy frequently gets luckier than he deserves. At the same time, I can’t help rooting for him even as he takes on characteristics that are beneath a man on the rise.
Forestier is very sick with tuberculosis. The disease is wasting him away. A young man, only in his late twenties, he will not only leave a higher position open at the newspaper, but he will also leave a young, beautiful, ambitious woman a widow. Both the job and the widow are of interest to Duroy. To him, she represents the pinnacle of success, but she will only prove to be a stepping stone for a man as ambitious as he is.
The Forestier death scene is particularly poignant because of his deathbed terror of the unknown, which even envelopes Madeleine and Duroy, who are devotedly attending his last moments, despite already scheming about a life after Forestier. When Guy De Maupassant was writing this novel in the 1880s, he already knew he was living under a death sentence. Syphilis was eroding his health at an alarming rate. When he wrote Forestier’s last moments, I couldn’t help thinking that he was recording his own fears and projecting his last curtain call upon this man who was dying too young.
First things first, Madeleine changes his name. He is now Duroy de Cantel or D. de Cantel. There are reasons why actors and actresses change their names, not only to be someone else, someone larger in even their own minds when they are acting, but to also have a memorable name that will easily trip off the tongue of those who hear it. Duroy is becoming an accomplished actor in the drama of his own life.
He has come a long way from the first squalid rooms he used in Paris. ”His wallpaper, grey with a blue floral pattern, had as many stains as flowers, ancient, dubious-looking stains that could have been squashed insects or oil, greasy finger-marks from hair cream or dirty soap suds from the wash-basin. It all reeked of poverty and degradation, the poverty of Parisian furnished lodgings.”
I know it isn’t possible for everyone to experience poverty, but for me, while trying to pay for college and at times walking around with just a few slender dimes in my pocket, the prospect of missing meals certainly honed my appreciation for what being successful really means. Though being successful takes on different meanings for different people, my vision of what a successful life is has certainly changed in the last few years. ”The road to success is thus largely paved by wily mediocrity; but, fortunately, as a counterbalance and a sort of poetic justice, Maupassant takes pains to underline the basic futility of ambition.” We see this philosophy in how Duray, excuse me, D. de Cantel adjusts to his rising prosperity. He is besotted by bitter envy of the triumphs of others to the point that he can’t enjoy the vaulted position he has achieved.
Achieved may be too strong a word.
He does still recognize who he is.
”A smart, low, open carriage came by drawn at a brisk trot by two slim greys with flowing manes and tails, driven by a small blonde young woman, a well-known high-class tart, with two grooms sitting behind her. Duroy stopped and felt like waving and applauding this woman whose success had been won on her back and who was boldly flaunting her luxury by taking her drive at the same time as these aristocratic hypocrites.”
I wonder, if we looked in on Duroy twenty years in the future, if he would still see the woman as an act of defiance to be celebrated, or will he be so steeped in the conventions of his new class that he will see her as someone to be vilified for her impertinence?
The women are so well drawn in this book. I find myself admiring them more than the men. They are competent, intelligent, and in many cases, use Duroy as much as he uses them. I especially admire Madeleine Forestier, who,
through her subtle astute suggestions, guides Duroy to better opportunities, and even suggests women he should strategically get to know better. She has no illusions about how either one of them are ever going to rise to a place of comfort.
The spectre of death, the dissatisfaction with success, the unseemliness of unquenchable ambition, and the hypocrisy of the aristocracy all make for a scathing, enjoyable romp through the dark alcoves, the boudoirs, and the secluded settees of Paris, as seeking fingers grope for the flesh beneath the silk.
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