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.
To Paris again next year!