Reading Maupassant reminds me why I love Jane Austen.
To be fair, I’ve only read one of the numerous short stories and one novel of Maupassant’s, but all of Austen’s six novels. So it just may not be apt for me to generalize the former. But focusing on just this book, Bel Ami, I can say here’s a protagonist whom I can never cheer for nor find amiable, to put it mildly…
Maupassant uses a scoundrel as the main character and have us follow his ascent, unscrupulous at every turn, as his ego and desires are being fed all the way to the end, and then some more. An antihero, the poster boy of realism in his depiction of late 19th C. Parisian high society?
Jane Austen has also written a protagonist she described as “A heroine whom no one but myself would like”. But comparing to Bel Ami‘s Georges Deroy, Emma Woodhouse is angelic. How do I even start to think of a parallel… imagine Wickham of Pride and Prejudice and Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility, combine them and magnify their nasty streak ten folds, then you’ll have Georges Deroy, nicknamed Bel Ami by the women in his life, ‘good friend’, a most pathetic irony.
The time is 1890’s Paris. Georges Duroy is a former soldier living in poverty. But call it luck or call it will, Duroy ends up a prominent figure in Parisian high society. This is how he does it.
Women. At one time, there are four significant females in Deroy’s life. These are upper crust, influential beauties. To Duroy, they are but rungs up the social ladder, each a conquest.
First is Madeleine Forestiers, the wife of his benefactor, editor friend whom he runs into coincidentally, and who saves him from poverty by bringing him in to work for the newspaper La Vie française.
The second one is Clotilde de Marelle, a married woman whom Duroy has made mistress. She aptly analyzes the Mars and Venus chasm of gender differences on that elusive notion called love. To Duroy, she says:
I know perfectly well that for you love is merely a sort of appetite whereas for me it would be more a sort of… communion of souls which doesn’t exist in a male religion. You understand the letter and I understand the spirit.
The third is the big boss of the newspaper Monsieur Walter’s wife Virgine, who has such a crush on Duroy that she loses her senses when he successfully schemes and manipulates her daughter Suzanne to elope with him.
George Wickham has plenty to learn from Georges Duroy because his subsequent wedding after the elopement is not a hush hush patch up, but a glamorous celeb nuptial, fully legit and the envy of all. By now, Duroy has climbed to be editor of La Vie française and made himself a Baron, changing his name to Du Roy for a more aristocratic sound. And we know full well that the conquest doesn’t stop there.
In one earlier incident, Duroy comes out of a gun duel unscathed, albeit a bit numbed. With his life spared, he could well have used such a near-death experience as a springboard to a new beginning and a turnaround of his ways. But his lucky escape has only fuelled his hubris and reaffirmed his self-importance. After the duel, he thinks himself invincible.
Is he immoral or amoral? I feel I have to choose the latter in order to find some amusement in following this unscrupulous character. Is it realism or sarcasm? I have to mix them both in order to seek some reading enjoyment. And with the English translation by the Cambridge scholar Douglas Parmée, there are the occasional descriptions that sounds… curt. But are they the original intent as realism dictates, or the collateral effects of translation? Can’t make up my mind on that one. Just an example:
The elder sister Rose was ugly, as flat as a pancake and insignificant, the sort of girl you never look at, speak to or talk about.
There, I find myself having to choose or debone or mix and stir in order to wash down better when reading Bel Ami. Under Maupassant’s pen of realism, Duroy is relentless all the way to the end. Just goes back to my love for Austen’s works… why, I can take in big gulps, devour and be totally satisfied. There are Wickham and Willoughby, but ultimately my yearning for some sort of poetic justice can be gratified. For my reading pleasure, I’ll take Jane’s idealism anytime.
Bel-Ami by Guy De Maupassant, translated by Douglas Parmée, Penguin Classics, movie tie-in edition, 2012, 394 pages.
As you can see from the book cover, Bel Ami has been adapted into film. To literature purists, I suggest you look for another edition. Whenever I read about Georges Duroy, which is on every page, Robert Pattinson’s face keeps haunting me, and images of Uma Thurman as Madeleine Forestier, Kristin Scott Thomas as Virginie keep conjuring up in my mind. Now I haven’t even watched the film… oh the suggestive power of a book cover.
This concludes my Paris in July entries for 2012. Thanks to Karen of BookBath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea for hosting.
To Paris again next year!
17 thoughts on “Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant”
Maupassant is rather a fascinating writer, and one who doesn’t get read very much. But he’s definitely a lot blacker than Austen with a far harsher world view. I put it down to the difference in ideology between Paris and Bath. If Austen had been a London-based writer, what would that have done to her style, I wonder?
You’ve a good point there … urban and rural environs could well have a major effect on a writer. Interesting though, when Jane was in Bath, she had writer’s block. She didn’t feel inspired, and was critical of the high society there. Not until she moved to Chawton House in the country did she resume her productivity. Speculating from this, if she had been a Londoner, well, maybe we would not have Jane Austen’s novels. 😉 Something like Van Gogh, who had to ‘escape’ from Paris to Arles for refuge and inspiration.
Spoiler alert below…
For Bel Ami, it’s not that I take issue with the dark side of human nature Maupassant depicts (I’m used to that with all the films I watch 😉 ), or that I love simplistic, happy endings. It is the absence of a denouement and resolution that has left me at a loss. As the book ends, we see Du Roy walk down the aisle with his young beautiful bride Suzanne, while despising her mother Virgine who’s useless to him now, and upon seeing Marelle, his mistress, he basks in desire and can’t wait to renew their intimate relationship as soon as he steps out the church.
He sounds like a classic narcissist to me. I’ve written a lot on the topic, so it was interesting when a friend forwarded this link and said, “Hey, read this. Sounds like a Narcissist.” Very interesting.
If Du Roy is still around, I’d definitely send the link of your blog to him. I’m sure he’ll be easy to find on Twitter and FB. You’re right, he waves all the red flags of one classic narcissist: grandiosity, lack of empathy, lack of genuine communication, and somatic/sex as conquest. Now, I have to look at Maupassant from a whole new light… and I’ve only read one of your Narcissist posts. His description of Du Roy sure has shown his understanding of psychology… come to think of it, he’s a contemporary of Frued. As for me… I’ve just added planetjan to my blogroll.
I’ve just read one story by de Maupassant, about a necklace, but I’ve been wanting to read a novel by him. Thank you for this recommendation!
Funny your current post is on 50 Shades of Grey… 😉
I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything by Maupassant. I’ve heard certain protagonists described as “anti-hero” before (like Reacher, for some reason), but Deroy sounds like the real thing.
The most well-known short story probably is The Necklace. But this novel is very different from that. ‘Antihero’? Du Roy would have liked that… ignoring the ‘anti’ part.
He sounds like some of Henry James’ characters. Does the fact that he was a poor soldier redeem him in any way? Do we at least understand why he’s like that?
It’s not so much about the character but the ending … with him getting everything he wants and then some more. alwaysjan above has suggested a most appropriate psychological term. Seems like he fits all categories of a narcissist. But then again, he wasn’t like that at the beginning of the story when he was living in poverty. The ‘moral’ of the story, if there’s one, could well be what the ambition for wealth, fame and power could do to a person.
I have enjoyed many of de Maupassant’s short stories, but didn’t even realize there were novels, too. This one does appeal to me, so I’ll file it away for ‘Paris in July’ next year.
It does make an incisive character study. You might enjoy it. The film adaptation has not been receiving good ratings though.
I bought this book for Paris in July and then Dostoevsky in Toronto didn’t allow me time to get to it. However, your post does nothing but make me want to read it Right Now. (I love you opening line, and it only gets better from there!) I haven’t thought of comparing Austen and Maupassant, but I’ll look for those parallels as I read. Also, I’m in the mood for a nasty character now. 🙂
In case you didn’t see my email, or it didn’t come through from yesterday, I wanted to invite you to join Richard, Frances and I in reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education for the end of August. I’m looking forward to it, as the only other work of his that I’ve read is Madame Bovary which effected me deeply as a teenager. (Talk about learning a lesson not to have an affair!)
Not parallels but contrasts. And, not that I intentionally compare the two writers, but just that the characters and plot make me think of the contrast, protagonists i can cheer for. Emails fail, books connect. 😉
In fact, Duroy is running amok across our political landscape. He has shown up in various incarnations in the past – Anthony Weiner, Bill Clinton, John Edwards – and he’s still with us in an assortment of guises, including the really quite amazing fellow who berated a drive-through restaurant worker for her company’s beliefs, put the whole thing on YouTube and then lost his job as Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer of a corporation for his trouble.
I’ve known a few narcissists in my life, and as I think of it, what amazes me most is that they’re all male. Perhaps the historical access to power available to men helps to feed the tendency. Women certainly can be as self-centered, but it seems to be expressed somewhat differently.
In any event, it intrigues me to think that “Bel Ami” might be more than a glimpse into the past. It may help us to understand events unfolding around us, the the people at the center of them.
You’re spot on. That’s the relevance of the novel… that it still speaks today in the political arenas of our time. You know, several times in the story, Duroy is nearly overcome by some emotion which stirs genuine love. But in an instant he wipes it off just like a sweat on his brow. Back to reality…
I’m not sure I’ve ever read any de Maupassant (sp. Sorry). I don’t think I’ll start with this one. Thanks for the tip!