"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 19, 2012

"Bel Ami" (1885) by Guy de Maupassant (Book Review)

Bel Ami is a fun novel about cold-blooded social climbing, with a generous admixture of sex and seduction as ladders to success. I was reminded of Balzac's earlier novel Le Père Goriot (1835), where the student Rastignac uses similar methods for advancement in Parisian society, only Guy de Maupassant is much more radically cynical than Balzac. Bel Ami has not for nothing been called one of the nastiest pieces of French literature - never have liaisons been more ruthless, even Les Liaisons Dangereuses stands in the shadow of this cruel book.  But it is also one of the most delicious books imaginable.


"Bel Ami" ("Beautiful Boy") is the nickname of Georges Duroy, a penniless soldier just returned from French Algeria who comes to Paris to make his fortune in journalism, in a corrupt society where the press are in league with the politicians (they are involved in secret preparations for a North-African invasion that will enrich them all). Georges has the luck to be introduced into society by an old friend from the army, Charles Forestier, now editor at the powerful newspaper "La Vie Française." It is Charles' beautiful and intelligent wife Madeleine who helps Georges write his first article, for he has no real journalistic talent. She also teaches him that the most important part of the Parisian population are the women, not the men.

Georges starts on the lowest sport of the ladder with a prostitute, Rachel, but soon climbs up to his first liaison by seducing Madeleine's married friend Clotilde, with whom he sets up a veritable love nest. All the same, he is on friendly terms with her elderly husband, who suspects nothing. When Charles dies, Georges presses his suit on Madeleine and marries her for further social advancement, but he also seduces Mme Walter, the wife of the super-rich owner of "La Vie Française," and while visiting her house, to put the icing on the cake, her daughter Suzanne falls hopelessly in love with him.

Via an intrigue Georges gets rid of Madeleine, and he also pushes the besotted, clinging Mme Walters away with a hard hand. As the husband of millionaire's daughter Suzanne the world will lie open for him, perhaps he will even become a minister... Georges has cunningly built his success on the hypocrisy, decadence and corruption of society, but his rise to power has above all been made possible by the powerful and wealthy women around him. At the party of his marriage to Suzanne, he presses the hand of Clotilde - they should soon have one of their intimate meetings again.


And with the description of Georges' wedding to Suzanne the satirical novel ends - we have glimpsed the future and there is nothing more to say. Moreover, this marriage in a fashionable church is the apex of the hypocrisy the novel castigates: the triumphant rascal, adorned with the Order of the Legion of Honor  marries the young daughter of a mother he has seduced and a father he has trapped into acquiescing with the marriage, and this marriage is blessed by the Church and recognized as something good and proper by all high society present! Readers who would like to see Georges punished for his unscrupulousness might be dissatisfied, but happily De Maupassant is too much of a realist to fall into such a trap. The world is cruel, and that is what he wanted to show us. Wealth and glory are often for the unworthy.
Read it for free at Gutenberg, but pick the right translation: Bel Ami, Or, the History of a Scoundrel is more a paraphrase than a faithful translation, so it is better to pick Bel Ami (A Ladies' Man). There is of course also an even better translation available as a Penguin Classic. The French version of this novel can be found here. There is also an audiobook in French.
Bel Ami was filmed several times, but no version can be recommended. The latest, made in 2012 by directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod and acted by Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas, is visually beautiful, but the casting is all wrong (especially the young actor who plays Bel Ami with a terrible squint) and it crams so much of the plot in just 100 minutes that it becomes a superficial story racing along without any depth.