An Irresistible Cad

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Is it possible to love a book and hate it at the same time? That is the question that nags me whenever I think of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami (1885). It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece: the characterization is subtle, the social critique is incisive, the plot is completely absorbing. But its protagonist, nicknamed Bel-Ami because of his extraordinary good looks, is one of literature’s most despicable creations: a man who tramples on friend and foe alike – and above all on the women who love him – in his pursuit of wealth and status. With another writer, you might stomach such behaviour in the sure expectation of a spectacular come-uppance; but Maupassant’s amoral universe is one in which some people can get away with anything. What keeps us turning the pages is the brilliance of his writing and a fascination with how far his anti-hero can go.

When we first meet George Duroy he is a young man on his uppers in 1880s Paris. The son of peasant innkeepers, he’s spent two and a half years with the army in North Africa, and has come to the city to seek his fortune; but all he’s found so far is a badly paid job as a railway clerk. As he wanders the streets on a warm summer evening, he longs for a glass of beer but knows he’ll have to go hungry if he buys one.

Then, among the crowd, he spots an old comrade. Charles Forestier has become the political editor of a newspaper, La Vie Française, and suggests that his friend too should try journalism. To help him on his way, he invites him to dinner to meet the paper’s owner, Monsieur Walter. When Duroy admits that he doesn’t have any suitable clothes, Forestier lends him the money to hire some: in Paris, he advises, appearances are everything. ‘You’re better off without a bed than without evening clothes.’

At the dinner Duroy meets three women who will fall under his spell and advance his career: Forestier’s beautiful young wife Madeleine; her friend Clothilde de M

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Is it possible to love a book and hate it at the same time? That is the question that nags me whenever I think of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami (1885). It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece: the characterization is subtle, the social critique is incisive, the plot is completely absorbing. But its protagonist, nicknamed Bel-Ami because of his extraordinary good looks, is one of literature’s most despicable creations: a man who tramples on friend and foe alike – and above all on the women who love him – in his pursuit of wealth and status. With another writer, you might stomach such behaviour in the sure expectation of a spectacular come-uppance; but Maupassant’s amoral universe is one in which some people can get away with anything. What keeps us turning the pages is the brilliance of his writing and a fascination with how far his anti-hero can go.

When we first meet George Duroy he is a young man on his uppers in 1880s Paris. The son of peasant innkeepers, he’s spent two and a half years with the army in North Africa, and has come to the city to seek his fortune; but all he’s found so far is a badly paid job as a railway clerk. As he wanders the streets on a warm summer evening, he longs for a glass of beer but knows he’ll have to go hungry if he buys one.

Then, among the crowd, he spots an old comrade. Charles Forestier has become the political editor of a newspaper, La Vie Française, and suggests that his friend too should try journalism. To help him on his way, he invites him to dinner to meet the paper’s owner, Monsieur Walter. When Duroy admits that he doesn’t have any suitable clothes, Forestier lends him the money to hire some: in Paris, he advises, appearances are everything. ‘You’re better off without a bed than without evening clothes.’

At the dinner Duroy meets three women who will fall under his spell and advance his career: Forestier’s beautiful young wife Madeleine; her friend Clothilde de Marelle, whose husband’s frequent business trips leave her free to pursue an affair; and the pious, middle-aged Madame Walter. All in different ways will be betrayed.

Madeleine Forestier is the book’s most enigmatic and intriguing character. A thoroughly modern woman, from her cigarette-smoking to her insistence on leading an independent life, she’s a journalist manquée who ghosts her husband’s articles and has her own highly effective network of political informants. Duroy recognizes her as exactly the kind of wife an ambitious man needs, and, when Forestier develops a fatal illness, loses no time in offering himself as a replacement. How exactly Madeleine feels about Duroy – whether there’s an element of calculation as well as love in her acceptance of him – we are never allowed to know, but Maupassant suggests that she is more alert to his machinations than anyone else. When Duroy tries to persuade her to make a large sum of money over to him, the author reflects on the mystery within every marriage:

He stopped in front of her; and once again they stood for a few moments staring into each other’s eyes, each striving to uncover the impenetrable secret of the other’s heart, to touch the quick of their mind. In an intense, silent cross-examination they tried to see each other’s soul laid bare – the intimate struggle of two beings who, living side by side, remain for ever closed to one another . . .

Maupassant draws us into his tale with all the skill of an angler playing a fish, allowing us spells of sympathy for Duroy before tugging us back to face the unpalatable truth. Above all, he exploits our love of rags-to-riches stories and our instinctive support for the underdog. Duroy’s rise is swift, but he’s made to suffer along the way. With no natural gift for writing, he agonizes over his articles and endures a dogsbody apprenticeship on La Vie Française until Madame Walter secures his promotion; he’s often humiliatingly short of money; and he lives in fear of making a terrible faux pas. When, after sitting tongue-tied in the corner of a smart salon, he finally manages a remark that wins approval, we can’t help delighting in his triumph.

And yet it’s plain from the first few pages that he’s a reprobate. Leaving a cheap restaurant, he casts a predatory eye over the female diners, calculating the effect of his looks on them; half of the money Forestier lends him is immediately spent on a prostitute. Worst of all, he remembers with ‘a cruel, gleeful smile’ the loot he collected in Africa on a raid that cost three tribesmen their lives.

Maupassant, though, won’t allow us the luxury of believing that Duroy is altogether different from us. He’s capable of spontaneous acts of kindness, such as playing with Clothilde de Marelle’s withdrawn daughter, Laurine – the person who christens him Bel-Ami. And some of the temptations he falls into are common enough: when he finds himself penniless and Clothilde gives him money, he swears that he will repay her but gradually persuades himself that this isn’t really necessary.

Maupassant shows above all that Duroy is the product of a specific society: fin-de-siècle Paris in all its decadence. Of those he encounters, Madame Walter alone is beyond reproach – and even she is eventually corrupted. Clothilde has no qualms about betraying her husband; Forestier and his colleagues at La Vie Française have little interest in truth or morality. The newspaper, indeed, exists mainly to promote the business interests of its proprietor, who makes a vast fortune by a spectacular act of deceit with the aid of a corrupt politician. Duroy, writing leaders about the decline of morals, may be a hypocrite, but he’s one among many.

My addiction to Maupassant began with a desperate need to brush up my French. Searching the family bookshelves on the eve of a Eurostar expedition, I came across a collection of his short stories which, with their compelling storylines and elegant but straightforward language, fitted the bill perfectly. Now, whenever I find myself in Paris, I try to visit a splendid bookshop on the Boulevard St Germain and buy another neat little paperback in the Livre de Poche series; and having graduated from the short stories to the novels, I find it impossible to picture that part of the city without Bel-Ami strolling through it. But you don’t have to cross the Channel or own a dictionary to enjoy the novel; the best translation I’ve found is Margaret Mauldon’s for Oxford World’s Classics.

In Bel-Ami, you sense the master of the short story wanting to make the most of his wider canvas, and it includes a number of extended set pieces which are highly readable but not always essential to the plot, such as the scene in which Duroy finds himself forced to fight a duel.

The conversation faltered, despite the anecdotes that the doctor trotted out. Only Rival made any reply. Duroy would have liked to join in, just to show a degree of coolness, but he was afraid of losing his train of thought, of betraying the desperate anxiety that he felt – and he was haunted by the excruciating fear that he might start to tremble. Soon the carriage was in open countryside. It was around nine o’clock. It was one of those bitterly cold winter mornings on which all of nature is as dazzling and as brittle as crystal. The trees seem to have sweated ice, leaving them covered in hoarfrost; the ground rings with every footstep; the dry air carries the slightest noise far into the distance; the blue sky shines as brightly as a mirror, and the sun – itself cold and dazzling – moves through the firmament pouring down rays that warm nothing on to the frozen world.

Maupassant’s account of Forestier’s lingering death is masterful and chilling, and he finds room for a long disquisition on mortality by an elderly poet, Norbert de Varenne. But even this can only throw Duroy momentarily off his stride: he and Varenne have barely parted company when a woman’s perfume reminds him of life’s sensual pleasures, and he returns to his old ways.

What drives Duroy above all is a hatred of those who have more than he does. At his most penurious, he rages at the men he sees sitting in cafés:

On average, each must have at least forty francs; there were at least a hundred of them in each café; a hundred times forty made four thousand francs. ‘The swine!’ he muttered . . . If he’d been able to grab any one of them on a street corner, deep in the shadows, he would have wrung his neck without a second thought . . .

By the end of the novel 4,000 francs will be small change to Duroy, and Maupassant hints that he will go on to make his mark in politics. It’s such a deplorable state of affairs that I wonder if I can bear to read Bel-Ami again – but something tells me that I won’t be able to resist it.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 67 © Anthony Gardner 2020


About the contributor

Anthony Gardner’s grandparents were so keen on French that it was the only language they allowed to be spoken in their house on Wednesdays. Some felt that this was asking a bit much of the cook. He is the author of two novels, The Rivers of Heaven and Fox, and a collection of poetry, The Pool and Other Poems.

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