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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