Classic Books: Bel-Ami

belamiReading Maupassant for the first time, I was struck by how down to earth he seemed. The following para, for me, could be straight out of Keep the Aspidistra Flying:

He said to himself: ‘I must hang on until ten o’clock and then I’ll have my glass of beer at the Café Américain. But my God I’m thirsty.’ And he looked at the men sitting drinking at the tables, all of them able to quench their thirst as and when they pleased. He walked briskly on past the cafés with a jaunty air, summing up at a glance, by their appearance or their dress, the amount of money each of them was likely to have in his pockets. And he was seized by a feeling of anger against all those people sitting there so contentedly. If you went through their pockets, you’d find gold coins, and silver, and copper there. On an average, each of them must have at least forty francs, and there were a good hundred or so in the café; a hundred times forty francs is two hundred louis! ‘The swine!’ he muttered to himself as he strutted elegantly by. If only he could have caught one of them in a quiet corner, he’d have wrung his neck without a second thought, my God, he would, just as he used to wring the necks of the peasants’ chickens when he was out on manoeuvres in the army.

The spacing out of deadly evenings, the stalled desires of misspent youth, the preoccupation with money and status, even the homicidal fantasy – this is straight out of the English novel circa 1931. Georges Duroy is an ex-army outsider struggling to make it in the Paris of the 1880s. If this had been an English novel, the bitter struggle would have lasted four hundred pages without decisive conclusion. Being French, Maupassant establishes Duroy’s impoverished resentment in a few pages, then delivers him from it. An old army comrade, Forestier, who is now a big name in journalism, runs into Duroy on the street, lends him money and introduces him to the right people. Maupassant nails the feeling of social intoxication:

He was beginning to experience a delicious sensation of physical comfort, a warmth that, starting from his stomach, rose to his head and spread through every limb until his whole body was glowing. He was seized by a feeling of complete well-being, a well-being of body and mind, life and thought.

And he was beginning to feel an urge to talk, to attract attention, to be listened to and appreciated […]

Duroy rises in the Paris media scene despite the fact that he can’t really write: although he becomes ‘one of the leading collaborators of La Vie française … he had extraordinary difficulty in finding new ideas’ and ‘made it his speciality to rail against the lowering of moral standards, the general weakening of character, the decline of patriotism and the anaemia that was sapping the French sense of honour. (He had discovered the word ‘anaemia’ and was very proud of it.)’ Despite Duroy’s laziness, his hackery, his increasingly exploitative behaviour, the reader never loses an affection for our scheming protagonist: perhaps because, no matter how far he climbs the snakes-and-ladders game of intellectual celebrity, it stays new and fresh to him, he is always so into the glamour. There is a great deal of intrigue and skulduggery in Bel-Ami and it’d be fun to write a similar fiction about the London media today. Obviously, such a novel would be immediately entombed in a heap of writs, should any commissioning editor be suicidal enough to back the hypothetical work. But let’s dream. There would, of course, be differences. If anything it’s harder to get journalism in England in 2014 that it was in the Paris of 1885. Still, things were riskier in Maupassant’s day. He has Duroy facing a duel, with pistols, after an exchange of uncomplimentary remarks with a fellow journalist. You don’t get that in Fleet Street these days. (Maybe it’s a shame: imagine the byplay. ‘Feel my blade, mountebank! How dare you criticise my quirky off-the-wall take on New Year’s Resolutions!’ ‘Mountebank, ha! You have written your last first-world-problems column. Sir, prepare to die. Avaunt!’)

Maupassant was running out the clock on syphilis at time of writing and the novel is suffused with Baudelairian themes of death and decay. At Forestier’s death, Duroy falls into a morbid reverie:

Duroy was gripped by an immense, bewildered, overwhelming terror, the terror of this ineluctable, limitless void which unceasingly destroys each short, miserable life. He could feel the threat already weighing him down. He was thinking of flies, which live a few hours, of animals which live a few days, of men who live a few years, of planets which live a few centuries. What difference was there then between them? A few extra dawns, that was all.

What keeps Duroy going against these impossible stakes is the idea of more power, more money, more women: the chance meeting with Forestier has awoken his desires, and they prove unquenchable. But Bel-Ami is warmer and deeper than a simple satire on consumerism. My edition is from 1975, with an introduction by the translator, Douglas Parmée. He emphasises Maupassant’s ceaseless energy (‘he played as hard as he worked’) and ends on this para: ‘life may be nasty and sometimes brutish and short; but, says Maupassant, it has its compensations. It’s worth living – and, in any case, what else can we do? Let’s make the most of it, bitter-sweet as it is: you may, like Duroy, be lucky – and luck, too, is not to be underrated.’

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