“His mates used to say: ‘He’s crafty and artful, he’ll be smart enough to keep out of trouble.’ And he vowed that he would indeed be crafty and artful and smart. His native Norman wit, sharpened by garrison life and broadened by looting in Africa, illicit perks and dubious dealing, as well as picking up ideas of honour in the army, together with military bravado, patriotic sentiment, deeds of derring-do retailed in the sergeants’ mess and the kudos of his profession, had turned him into a sort of box with several false bottoms, in which you could find bits of practically everything.”
When Guy de Maupassant died of syphilis in 1893, he was only 43 years old, but in his lifetime he produced over 250 short stories and six novels. One of the greatest of these novels is Bel Ami–the story of the ambitious Georges Duroy. When the novel begins, Georges is a penniless, ex-hussar, living in Paris and working as a railway clerk. On 1500 francs a year, he’s staving off starvation as best he can while craving the life on a bon vivant. The very first paragraph sketches Georges’ character–a man who attracts women on all levels of society:
“Making the change for his five-franc piece from the woman behind the till, Duroy left the restaurant. A well set-up man, with all the swagger of an ex-cavalry N.C.O., he drew himself up, twirled his moustache with a familiar soldierly gesture and swiftly cast his eye around the room over the belated diners like a handsome young man looking for fish to catch.
The women had looked up and were watching him; three little working-class girls; a slovenly, unkempt middle-aged music mistress with a permanently dusty hat and a dress which never fitted properly; and a couple of middle-class housewives with their husbands, regular customers of this cheap little restaurant.”
A few paragraphs later, Georges walks the streets of Paris, and again, Maupassant draws his character with bold strokes. Georges is vain, shallow, and self-centered. Although Georges is wondering how he’s going to manage to eat for the next few days, he saunters along with his hat set at an angle which reflects his underlying arrogance:
“He strutted along as if he were still in uniform, with his chest stuck out and legs slightly straddled as if he had just got off his horse, and shouldering his way through the crowd, he strode down the street with complete disregard for everyone else. His top hat, which had seen better days, was cocked at an angle over one ear and his heels made a smart click as they struck the pavement. He seemed to be offering a permanent challenge to someone, the passer-bys, the houses, the whole of the town, with all the cockiness of a good-looking soldier now reduced to civilian life.”
Georges’ inability to agonize about his future is a clue to his shallow nature. As he saunters along, he resentfully watches diners and wishes he could throttle them. These thoughts lead to memories of his days in the army–glorious days of colonialism that set him against natives who were easy to abuse and rob. Regretfully he notes:
“But Paris was different. You couldn’t just set out on a nice little looting expedition with a pistol in your hand and a sword at your side, just as you pleased with no danger from the law.”
Georges’ shallowness dictates that he’s not the sort of person who agonizes or turns his failures into episodes of self-loathing. He tends to view himself as a remarkable person–one of those people who will drift through life and always meet good fortune, and true to form that very evening, Georges stumbles onto an old acquaintance from the army, Forestier. Forestier, now the political editor of the newspaper, La Vie Francaise, is obviously affluent. In spite of the fact that Georges has failed to get his degree, and that he’s never written anything in his life, Forestier offers him a position on the paper, and Georges accepts.
So begins Georges’ rapid rise in Paris and in the publishing world. Talentless, and not particularly intelligent, Georges rises by using women, and the delightful thing about this is that Georges’ shallowness doesn’t allow for a great deal of calculation; it’s the women that he uses who pimp for George with each relationship ensuring Georges’ upward career climb: his faithful mistress, a talented wife, and the hysterical wife of his employer. Particularly amusing is Georges’ ridiculous affair with Madame Laroche-Mathieu– a woman who valiantly tries to escape Georges’ charm but succumbs in the most pathetic manner, and then rapidly degenerates to the behaviour of a giddy schoolgirl. And through it all, Georges, a mediocre man, remains untouched as he indulges in affairs based on exploitation. After all, Georges’ greatest affair is with himself, and relationships with women are just a means to an end–nothing more and nothing less.
Where most people have some sort of moral core, Georges’ morality is non existent–except for his obligations to himself, and so others are used and tossed aside as Georges mutters arguments of justification–turning his actions into justified moral decisions while everything he does–from the meals he eats to the company he keeps is geared towards his self-love and the life he thinks he deserves.
The novel charts Georges, who becomes known as Bel-Ami, amongst his female acquaintance, as he rises in Parisian society. At first ill-fed and badly dressed, he quickly mimics the habits of society, and simply because he is so hollow, he finds it no challenge to don the life of a successful writer. Along the way, he fights a duel with a rival newspaper reporter, becomes embroiled in political scandal, and in essence takes Paris by storm.
Bel-Ami is unusual in its depiction of a male who uses powerful women to get what he wants. As he steps from bed to bed and from encounter to encounter, Wharton’s The Custom of the Country comes to mind. Wharton’s heroine, Undine Spragg rises through the ranks of New York society by her marriages to a succession of men, with each match more favourable than the last. While both Bel-Ami and Undine are ambitious characters, in Bel-Ami’s case, Georges isn’t a particularly driven character. He wants the accouterments of good fortune, but he maintains a certain lassitude about his ambitions, allowing the various women in his life to go out and hunt for him. And throughout it all, Georges remains emotionally untouched and emerges a glossier, sleeker version of himself .
A note on the translation: I read the Penguin edition translated by Douglas Parmee, and it was excellent–very lively and smooth to read.