An Irresistible Cad
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.