Category Archives: Maupassant, Guy de

Like Death: Maupassant

“Daylight poured into the enormous studio through an open bay in the ceiling: this oblong of brilliant light–an immense perforation in the remote azure infinity–was ceaselessly crisscrossed by sudden flights of birds.”

Maupassant’s delicately sensitive novel, Like Death is an exploration of aging, love and to a lesser degree the hollowness of fame. Painter Olivier Bertin is at the pinnacle of his long successful career, and yet although he’s achieved fame and material success (unlike most artists) he’s not a happy man. But neither is he unhappy–rather, he is bored and discontent. Now Bertin is at an impasse in his career and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his “inspiration.” Every idea he has seems stale.

Rich, famous, the recipient of many honors, he remains, toward the end of his life, a man unaware of the ideal he is pursuing.

His art follows the style worshiped by dictated tastes of the Academy: “great historical scenes” and “living men along classical lines.” But a successful artist does not work in a vacuum.

Perhaps, too, the world’s sudden infatuation for his work–always so elegant, so correct so distingué–has had a certain influence on his nature and kept him from being what he would in the course of things have become. Since the triumphs of his early work, a constant desire to please has unconsciously haunted him, secretly impeding his development and attenuating his convictions. his craving to please, moreover, had shown itself in a great variety of forms and contributed a good deal to his renown.

Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a conservative politician, has been Bertin’s mistress since posing for her portrait many years earlier. She’s promoted his work and encouraged him in “considerations of fashionable elegance,” so in other words, she’s helped his career and kept his art safely in the commercially successful category. Over the years, their relationship has waxed and waned; he’s had other mistresses but he always returns to her, and “her life [is] a constant combat of coquetry.” At this point in time, facing old age, Bertin’s regretting that he couldn’t marry her and that he is alone.

like death

Everything for Bertin and the Countess changes with the arrival in Paris of Annette, the Countess’s 18 year old daughter who’s there to be married off to a wealthy young man…..

An almost macabre dance between Bertin, the Countess and her daughter begins to take place. Bertin is awed by the young girl and considers her even more beautiful than her mother. Is she his next, most significant, muse? Meanwhile the Countess begins to wonder if her daughter is her fatal rival.

Like Death boldly confronts aging as Bertin feels jealous of the young girls fiance but sadder still is the fact that the Countess finds herself a poor rival against her daughter’s youth. So we see aging as the enemy of love: Bertin falls in love with a young girl who likes him but doesn’t conceive of him as a romantic suitor, and the Countess sees herself aging and is desperate to be attractive. There’s, of course, an immense sense of futility here as Bertin, thinking she’s his next muse, plies Annette with expensive gifts, and the Countess decides never to stand next to her daughter in bright light. In another writer’s hands, this could be a farce, but Maupassant grants both Bertin and the Countess dignity.

In one very poignant scene, the Countess prays for her beauty to remain, that she can stay attractive for just a few more years.

Then, having risen, she would sit before her dressing-table, and with a tension of thought as ardent as if in prayer, she would handle her powders, her cosmetics, her pencils, the puffs and brushes which gave her once more a beauty of plaster, daily and fragile.

While Like Death is not as perfect as Bel Ami, thanks to its subject matter, it’s relevant, and Maupassant shows incredible empathy as he gently explores the Countess’s fears and vanity.  As I read this I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, a novel in which a sculptor, in his search for the perfect woman, courts three generations from the same family.

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard

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A Duel: Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant uses duel as farce in Bel Ami. His main character, Georges (the Bel Ami of the title) is more or less pushed into a duel against a rival journalist, and in order to go through with it, Bel Ami polishes off a bottle of brandy. Of course, the danger is exaggerated, later, with each subsequent retelling of the almost comical event.

In the short story, A Duel, Maupassant presents an entirely different scenario. It’s post Franco-Prussian war, and France is overrun with the victors.

The war was over. The Germans occupied France. The whole country was pulsating like a conquered wrestler beneath the knee of his victorious opponent.

On a train going to join his wife and children who are safe in Switzerland, is a certain M. Dubois “who during the entire siege had served as one of the National Guard in Paris.” Dubois is an unprepossessing figure:

Famine and hardship had not diminished his big paunch so characteristic of the rich, peace-loving merchant. He had gone through the terrible events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints at the savagery of men. Now that he was journeying to the frontier at the close of the war, he saw the Prussians for the first time, although he had done his duty on the ramparts and mounted guard on many a cold night.

Dubois isn’t happy to find himself surrounded by Prussians, and “he stared with mingled fear and anger at those bearded armed men, installed all over French soil as if they were at home, and he felt in his soul a kind of fever of impotent patriotism.” Also in the same railway carriage are two Englishmen who are there as sightseers.  The train stops at a village and a Prussian officer enters. The Englishmen stare with interest at the Prussian while Dubois pretends to read the newspaper. But in spite of Dubois’ attempts to avoid conflict, he’s provoked repeatedly by the Prussian officer who goads and insults Dubois until he can take no more. Given that the title of the story is A Duel, it’s easy to guess where the action goes.

But while the story touches on patriotism (from the author as well as from the characters), the story is also a piece on temperament. The Prussian is spoiling for his next fight while the “impassive” Englishmen are caught in the middle as spectators:

The Englishmen seemed to have become indifferent to all that was going on, as if they were suddenly shut up in their own island, far from the din of the world.

Maupassant volunteered during the Franco-Prussian war and many of his stories, including the unforgettable Boule de Suif (Butterball) are set during the period. While A Duel isn’t one of Maupassant’s  best short stories, it’s interesting for how Maupassant portrays the duel in this instance. A duel is a means of obtaining satisfaction, settling arguments, and while Bel Ami’s duel was really an empty, meaningless event, the duel here is brisk and brutal.

7 pages

Translated by A.E. Henderson & Mme Louise Quesada

 

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Sundays of a Bourgeois: Guy de Maupassant

Monsieur Patissot is the subject of Guy de Maupassant’s short story Sundays of a Bourgeois, a piece that’s really a study in character, and a piece in which Maupassant manages to get a dig in at Zola. M. Patissot is fifty-two when the story begins, and that’s an interesting place to start; he’s set in his career of government service (more of that later) and isn’t as much a failure with women as much as they are not a part of his life (again more of that later). Maupassant makes an argument for his character’s mediocrity–just look at the title alone, and he also lets us know that Patissot “failed in his examinations,” and so began a life of lowly government service through the help of a relative.

The story is broken into sections: Preparations for the Excursion, Fishing Excursion, Two Celebrities, Before the Celebration, An Experiment in Love, and a Dinner and some Opinions. As you can tell from the titles, the stories focus on Patissot’s leisure time, and Maupassant tells us, tongue in cheek, that “the tale of his excursions may be of value to many Parisians who will take them as a model for their own outings, and will thus, through his example, avoid certain mishaps.”

Preparations for the Excursion delves into Patissot’s career. Not destined for greatness,  Patissot “advanced very slowly, and would perhaps, have died a fourth-class clerk,” but for his powers of imitation. Always hoping for a pay raise, he tells himself he  “had too much self-respect” to grovel to “his superiors,” and claimed “his frankness embarrassed many people, for, like all the rest, he protested against injustice and favoritism shown to persons entirely foreign to the bureaucracy.” In spite of these comforting thoughts “his indignant voice never passed beyond the little cage where he worked.” So you can’t really dislike Patissot. He’s not a bad person and there’s a little comic touch to this poor little man who assuages himself with imagined principles which explain and excuse his lowly position. Of course, all those principles go flying out the window in time.

First as a government clerk, then as a Frenchman and finally as a man who believes in order he would adhere to whatever government was established, having an unbounded reverence for authority, except for that of his chiefs.

Patissot finally gets ahead in government office by imitating the appearance of Napoleon III, but he suffers a temporary setback when “the Republic was proclaimed,” His “ape like faculty of imitation,” was stymied until he began sporting a tri-clouded rosette, which, accompanied by a new demeanor, led to more promotions.

In his mid-fifties, health issues lead to an interest in exercise, and this heralds an orgy of consumerism:

He visited a so-called American shoe store, where heavy travelling shoes were shown him. The clerk brought out a kind of ironclad contrivance, studded with spikes like a harrow, which he claimed to be made from Rocky Mountain bison skin. He was so carried away with them that he would willingly have bought two pair, but one was sufficient. He carried them away under his arm, which soon became numb from the weight. He next invested in a pair of corduroy trousers, such as carpenters wear, and a pair of oiled canvas leggings. Then he needed a knapsack for his provisions, a telescope so as to recognize villages perched on the slope of distant hills, and finally a government survey map to enable him to find his way about without asking the peasants toiling in the fields.

Later in the story, in Two Celebrities, Patissot and a cousin travel to Poissy to the home of the painter Meissonier, and once there, the painter proudly gives a tour of his incredible home. Next onto the home of “the author of the Rougon-Macquart series,” Zola. This time we get a description of Zola’s home with “an immense table littered with books, papers and magazines,” and Zola is “stretched out” on an “oriental divan where twenty persons could have slept.”

Patissot and his cousin don’t get far in the conversation department until Patissot tells Zola that he owns a “superb property,” and “then in the heart of the man of letters, the landowner awoke.”  The visit is a success.

An Experiment in Love finds Patissot at the Folies-Bergere where he makes an assignation with one woman only to have another show in her place. Octavie is a tall, loud red-head who creates a series of embarrassing scenes:

Shame overwhelmed Patissot, who as a government employee, had to observe a certain amount of decorum. But Octavie stopped talking, glancing at her neighbours, seized with the overpowering desire which haunts all women of a certain class to make the acquaintance of respectable women. After about five minutes she thought she had found an opening, and, drawing from her pocket a Gil-Blas, she politely offered it to one of the amazed ladies, who declined, shaking her head. Then the big, red-headed girl began saying things with a double meaning, speaking of women who were stuck up without being any better than the others; sometimes she would let out a vulgar word which acted like a bomb exploding amid the icy dignity of the passengers.

Patissot, a man “full of that common sense which borders on stupidity,” isn’t a bad person, just an ordinary one, and his mis-adventures, viewed with just a hint of the malicious, border on comic. Patissot, who’s spent his youth working in a lowly, ill-paid position, finally has the means to do more than simply exist. He is in his 50s before he begins to branch out beyond his employment into any sort of social life, and if a youth in his 20s mis-steps then we have a coming of age story, but with Patissot stumbling along in his 50s, there’s a whiff of both the pathetic and the poignant to his Sunday adventures.

Translated by: A.E. Henderson and Mme Louise Quesada

44 pages

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Butterball by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve been on a roll lately with Maupassant, and when I saw this Hesperus edition of Butterball, a collection of Maupassant stories sitting on my shelf, well I just couldn’t resist. This edition is translated by Andrew Brown and includes a foreword by Germaine Greer. There are six Maupassant stories here:

Butterball (sometimes known as Boule de Soif), The Confession, First Snow, Rose, The Dowry and Bed 29. For me, the best stories were Butterball and Bed 29. While all 6 stories show tremendous empathy for the lot of women (from the high-born to the lowly peasant girl), both Butterball and Bed 29 are stories that take place during the Franco-Prussian war and very specifically examine the fate of prostitutes.

When Butterball begins, the French army has beaten an ignoble retreat and the civilian population is left to face the invading Prussians. The civilians, for the most part, have more or less minded their own business while war waged around them. Now the “debris” of the French army is gone, and the citizens of Rouen wonder–with some trepidation–just what their fate will be when the Prussians arrive. In one passage, Maupassant compares the invading army to some natural disaster:

“Commands, shouted out in an unknown guttural tongue, rose along the houses which seemed dead and deserted, while from behind the closed shutters, eyes peeped out at these victorious men, masters of the city, of the fortunes and lives in it, by ‘right of conquest’. The inhabitants in their darkened rooms were struck by the panic induced by natural cataclysms, by those murderous upheavals of the earth, against which all wisdom and all strength are useless. For the same sensation reappears each time that the established order of things is overturned, when security no longer exists and all that was protected by the laws of men or those of nature finds itself at the mercy of a fierce and mindless brutality. The earthquake that crushes an entire populace beneath their collapsing houses; the overflowing river which rolls along in its torrent drowned peasants with the carcasses of cattle and the beams torn from rooftops; or the glorious army massacring those who put up any resistance, leading the others away as prisoners, pillaging in the name of the sabre and giving thanks to a god with the sound of the cannon – all are so many terrible scourges which confound any belief in eternal justice, any trust that we have learnt to place in Heaven’s protection and man’s reason.”

A handful of Rouen residents are granted permission to leave the city, and so early one morning a stagecoach prepares for departure. Most of the passengers are leaving for business reasons but they are fully prepared to flee to England if necessary. The passengers are people who would normally not socialize: wine merchants M. and Mme Loiseau, an extremely affluent mill owner and his wife M. and Mme Carre-Lamadon,  the aristocratic Count and Countess Hubert, two nuns, a rather odd character called Cornudet and a prostitute whose “precocious corpulence … earned her the nickname of Butterball.”

“She was small, round all over, as fat as lard, with puffed-up fingers congested at the joints so they looked like strings of short sausages; with a glossy, taut skin, and a huge and prominent bosom straining out from beneath her dress.”

The so-called respectable passengers are of course disgusted to find themselves sharing the same coach with such a  creature. At first, their collective outrage at being forced to share the same air as Butterball causes the passengers to attempt to be friendly with one another while pointedly cutting Butterball out of the social loop. But then the trip winds on, it’s freezing cold and no one has thought to bring any food along for the trip–no one except Butterball. Obviously a woman who loves food, Butterball is very well prepared and her picnic basket breaks down the social barriers that seemed unbreachable.

The coach stops at an inn, and there a young Prussian officer refuses to let the travellers continue on their journey until Butterball grants him her favours. While Butterball, a committed Bonapartist declines, claiming her patriotism to France, the passengers become increasingly annoyed with her. Their logic is that after all, she wouldn’t be doing anything she hasn’t done thousands of times before….

Bed 29 concerns Captain Epivent, an officer who’s his own greatest fan. For his insufferable vanity and superficial nature, he reminds me very much of Bel Ami. Maupassant describes Epivent:

“When Captain Epivent went by in the street, all the women turned round. He really presented the perfect example of a handsome officer of the hussars. So he was always parading and strutting up and down, filled with pride and preoccupied with his thighs, his waist, his moustache. And they were superb, too, moustache, waist and thighs. The first was blond, very prominent, falling martially onto his lip in a fine wave the colour of ripe hay, but slender, meticulously curled, and swooping down on either side of his mouth in two powerful bristling sweeps that positively swaggered. His waist was as slender as if he had been wearing a corset, while a powerful masculine torso, broad chest thrown out, rose above it. His thighs were admirable, the thighs of a gymnast, a dancer; every ripple of their muscular flesh showed through the tight-fitting fabric of his red trousers.”

Maupassant makes the point however, that while Epivent appears to be a superb specimen in uniform, in civilian clothes, “he made no more of an impression than a shop assistant.” Captain Epivent is, of course, successful with women, and when he’s stationed in Rouen, “the kept women of the town” engage in a “real struggle, a race, as to who would snap him up.” The victor is La Belle Irma–the mistress of a rich factory owner, and she transfers her attentions from her wealthy keeper to Epivent. But after a teary, romantic farewell, Epivent goes off to battle….

These two stories focus on the behaviour of fictional characters towards prostitutes. In Butterball, the hypocrisy of the corpulent prostitute’s  fellow passengers is evident very quickly in the story–the coach may be full of French people fleeing from the Prussians, but it’s only Butterball’s food that convinces the hypocritical passengers that they will talk to her. Later, the passengers are collectively happy to pimp her out to the Prussian officer. With Butterball in the coach and also at the inn, all the other passengers–regardless of class or religion combine forces to sniff their disapproval of a woman they think is beneath contempt.  The subversive Cornudet is the exception but then he too wants to bed Butterball.

In Bed 29, the vanity of Captain Epivent both draws him to Irma and then later repels him. At first she’s a prize, then a burden, and finally she’s a mechanism for other officers who seek revenge against Epivent.

In creating these two women, Butterball and Irma, Maupassant also provokes the reader’s morality. With the passengers stuck at the inn pressuring Butterball to comply, moral arguments appear, then sink, but still remain submerged under the surface of the text. Similarly in Bed 29, should Irma’s version of events be believed or not? Both of these tales present situations that induce certain decisions with subsequent questions of morality. We question not only the behaviour of the characters towards prostitutes but also face our own morality as we respond to these wonderful stories.

One point I’d like to bring up: we know that Maupassant died of syphilis in a private asylum. I’d taken it for granted that he was infected in the usual fashion. In the introduction, Germaine Greer notes that “it would seem that both sons [Herve and Guy] were infected with syphilis at birth.”  This does make sense given that both Guy and his brother Herve showed signs of syphilis very early, but other sources says that Maupassant was infected by a prostitute. My intro to Afloat for example, states that Maupassant “had resources to brothels and street women. The result was inevitable: he contracted syphilis, that scourge of the nineteenth century.” I suppose it doesn’t matter in one sense, and yet in another speculative way, perhaps it is important.

On another note, the foreword also lists the identities of the real passengers in Butterball and even gives the identity of the real prostitute, Adrienne Annonciade Legay. Translator Andrew Brown’s intro is excellent–translators don’t seem to get much acknowledgment, so I’d like to plug in a word here for his excellent literary criticism.

I’d like to give a ‘thanks’ to Nick who leaves comments here. He left a comment on my review of Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. I noted that I wasn’t in a big hurry to read another, but then realised that I wasn’t in a hurry to read this Maupassant collection that was sitting on my shelf. So I thought about this, and realised that I wasn’t in a hurry to read books that I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about yet neither was I in a hurry to read something I would probably love! I asked myself, ‘well what are you going to read then? The stuff in the middle? What if you are flatten by a bus tomorrow?’  That observation made, I reached for the Maupassant…. So thanks Nick for making me think about that.

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Alien Hearts by Guy de Maupassant

Last year I read Maupassant’s Bel Ami: the story of a mediocre man who soars in Parisian society, establishing a stellar career as a journalist through a series of exploitive relationships with women. I loved the novel for its cynicism and for its hollow main character–an amoral man who very successfully sails through life without really ever having a clue about the sort of person he is or ever examining his complete lack of talent.

So this led me to Alien Hearts Maupassant’s last novel. When I read that New York Review Books intended to release a new translation by Richard Howard, well I knew I had to read it. I was curious to see how someone as cynical and world-weary as Maupassant dealt with the subject of love. I was not disappointed.

Alien Hearts was published in serial form in 1890, and it’s Maupassant’s last novel. After Alien Hearts, Maupassant wrote two more plays before dying of Syphilis in 1893 at the age of 43. Another great writing career cut short. Given the cynicism of Maupassant in his 30s & 40s, I can only speculate about the sort of books he would have written in the old age that was denied him….

Onto the novel: and what a splendid read this is.  Alien Hearts presents one of literature’s strangest love affairs–an affair that takes place between Andre Mariolle and the beautiful widow, Madame de Burne. Given Maupassant’s presentation of the utilitarian basis of relationships, it makes perfect sense that this author’s version of a love affair would be out of the range of the usual love story theme.  Alien Hearts is a psychologically complex anti-love story.  It’s not an anti-love story in the sense that Maupassant says that there’s no such thing as love; that would be too simple for a mind like Maupassant’s. In Alien Hearts, Maupassant analyses the relationship and the love affair between Mariolle and Michele de Burne  and strips it down to reveals its complications and its paradoxes.

Andre Mariolle is a wealthy man whose life, on the surface, would seem enviable, yet at the same time there’s an emptiness, a lack of purpose that makes him vulnerable to Madame de Burne:

“At thirty-seven Andre Mariolle,  unmarried and without profession, rich enough to live as he pleased, to travel where he liked, and to collect a houseful of modern paintings and old porcelain, passed for a witty fellow, rather whimsical, rather wilful, rather superior, who affected solitude for reasons of pride rather than shyness. Talented and astute but lazy, likely to understand everything and even to accomplish something, he had nonetheless been content to enjoy life as a spectator, or rather as an amateur. Had he been poor, he would doubtless have become remarkable, or at least famous; born to wealth, he endlessly reproached himself for turning into a nobody.”

Mariolle is a dabbler, a dilettante–never focusing on just one thing, he manages to achieve a decent level of talent in a number of skills. He’s published a few articles, dallies in sculpture, and it’s said that he’s an excellent horse rider and fencer, but Mariolle deliberately avoids the sort of company in which these skills would be put to the test. So while he appears to be a very well-rounded individual, he shows no great talent in any one thing:

His lofty air of reserve seemed to say, “I’m nothing because I chose not to do anything.” Consequently he moved in a tight little circle, scorning elegant flirtations and the grand salons where all eyes were on others who would have outshone him, casting him into the ranks of worldly supernumeraries. He made his appearances only in houses where his serious and undisclosed talents were sure to be acknowledged.

Mariolle is persuaded by one of his friends to attend an evening at the home of Madame Michele de Burne–a young, attractive widow whose brief marriage   “to a well-bred monster” was so miserable that people speculate that her experience was so aversive, so repulsive, that she will never marry again. And indeed there seems little doubt that Madame de Burne is in her element as an attractive widow, hosting social evenings in which she gathers together various artists: musicians, novelists, philosophers, poets and wits. Madame de Burne’s father serves as a “formidable chaperon,” and his presence helps stave off some of the uglier gossip. Madame de Burne “indulged her mildly bohemian tendencies with an altogether bourgeois prudence,” so that society never has cause to suspect any hint of scandal taking place between the widow and her cultivated coterie of admirers.  

Warned by a friend that Madame de Burne is a collector of men, Mariolle attends his first evening at Madame de Burne’s quite aware of the fact that she wants to add him to her circle. Some of her admirers are married–others are single, but there’s an evident pattern of behaviour at play. A newcomer is invited, and if he pleases or amuses Madame de Burne, then he becomes the new favourite and in time is added to the inner circle of discarded favourites. All of the men have tried to seduce the widow, but all have failed. Some men hang on in the “sect” like eunuchs in the widow’s harem, continuing to be besotted with their hostess and content to share the air she breathes, while other men drop out of the circle embittered and jealous. Gaston de Lamarthe, a friend of Mariolle and a “novelist by profession” finds the psychological aspects of Madame de Burne’s behaviour utterly fascinating. Indeed she provides the novelist with ample material for a novel about women who “never manage to reach the level of real desires.” At least as a writer Lamarthe has an outlet for his amorous disappointments.

Any man who enters Madame de Burne’s circle aware of the game plan has three options:

1) to be appalled and have nothing to do with her

2) to fall in love and become another helpless addition to the collection

and/or

3) to imagine, through an appeal to his ego, that he will be the One who will capture Madame de Burne’s heart and body.

Alien Hearts is the story of Mariolle’s relationship–his love affair–with Madame de Burne. Mariolle longs for grand passion, and he feels it, but his hunger and obsession is fed with disappointment, and he finds he’s “trying to kiss a mouthful of air.” As Maupassant tracks the affair he effectively strips away at the mystique of love, analysing it in the process: the torment, the esctacy, and the passion, and in its place what is left is a tepid affair that resembles a marriage in the dull inevitability of compromise and a polite glossing over of unacceptable behaviour for the sake of domestic harmony. The fascinating psychological aspects of Alien Hearts create numerous questions about the nature of love, the ability to love, the variable human need to love and to be loved, and the power struggle and inequities within all relationships.

Here’s one of my favourites quotes about Madame de Burne–a woman who’s every bit as hollow as Bel Ami (Georges Duroy):

she considered herself a creature virtually unique, a singular pearl cast in a mediocre world which struck her as somewhat barren and monotonous precisely because she was too good for it.

Never would she have suspected herself to be the unconscious cause of the continuous boredom she suffered from; she blamed others for it and held them responsible for her melancholy. If they could not manage to divert her sufficiently, to amuse and even to attract her, it was because they lacked talents, charm, authentic qualities.

On a final note, the introduction explains that Tolstoy disliked the novel:

“In this last novel the author does not know who is to be loved and who is to be hated, nor does the reader know it, consequently he does not believe in the events described and is not interested in them.”

Well there’s no accounting for taste and Tolstoy could be notoriously nasty when it came to other writers (Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, just to mention two names), and then Tolstoy’s relationship with Turgenev was hostile enough to lead to threats of a duel to the death. But it is worthwhile to note that while Tolstoy loathed Alien Hearts, he was reading Maupassant’s Un Vie when Tolstoy made that famous dash to the ‘last station’. Personally, I prefer Bel Ami and Alien Hearts to Un Vie….

 

 

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Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

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.”

bel amiGeorges’ 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.

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