I am prone to obsessions, most of them too debilitating to confess at any time. Georges Duroy, the title character of Bel ami by Guy de Maupassant, is obsessed as well. He is a young ex-soldier in 1880’s Paris obsessed with changing his life for the better. He is very poor. On a summer night, wandering the streets around the Parisian cafés, Duroy tries to decide between spending his last 3 francs 40 sous on a drink or spend the last three days of the month hungry while waiting for his next pay. He watches people, men and women happily drinking at the cafés; they have no apparent worries nor they seem to have to make any mental calculations to see if they can afford their next drink. By chance, he meets an old army friend. Life has turned out very differently for him: Forestier writes for La Vie française newspaper, is married and, as Duroy notices, is respectably dressed and with the look of somebody who eats and has eaten well for a while.Thus starts Duroy’s climb into Paris society.
As often happens in 19th century novels, Duroy easily finds a job at the newspaper through his connection with Forestier and from there on he seduces woman after woman to achieve the place he really think he deserves in Paris: the top. It doesn’t happen as easily as I make it sound: he is tested by his journalist colleagues who accuse him of not writing his own articles (which is true at the beginning) but slowly he is able to learn the trade and stand on his own. Duroy’s ambition and obsession with power are what guide the story. He has been so poor for so long, is so ashamed of his humble country origins, is so acutely aware of his lack of talent that he is desperate to become somebody else, a completely new creation far away from what he really is.
Unlike me, who am debilitated by my obsessions, Duroy is not debilitated by his. Quite the opposite, he gets bolder and bolder as the book goes along: at one point he seduces his newspaper boss’s wife and he doesn’t even stop there. The most surprising thing about this novel is that, even though Maupassant wrote this book in 1885, it feels fresh and modern in many ways. One reason is his writing style, which is highly naturalistic. Details about prices, daily routines, work at a French newspaper, restaurant meals or women’s dresses bring 1885 Paris to life in a way I had not experienced before.
But there is, I think, another reason why it feels so modern as well. Duroy reminds me of our current obsession with easy fame and celebrity: he wants to be powerful, admired, desired, and most importantly, respected. He doesn’t know how he will get there or what means he will use, he only knows he will do it and that he deserves it. My younger brother has admirable ambition, the kind I never had: big, slightly calculating and smart. He looks up to and studies those he wants to emulate. Duroy does the same, he studies those he would like to emulate to try to become like them. The difference is that he doesn’t necessarily admires them and those he wants to emulate are not always irreproachable.
Although this book is so full of life, two of my favorite chapters deal with death. Maupassant captures Duroy’s feelings so acutely throughout the book that when he confronts the possibility of his own death and his fear and repulsion at somebody else’s death it feels very, very real. At the end of the novel, Duroy has definitely made it, though we have the feeling he won’t stop there, that he will continue to climb higher and higher into Parisian society and lower and lower into the depths of his own ambition.
Bel ami is definitively a classic you won’t regret reading. And there are many movie and TV versions that have been made of it, the most recent with Robert Pattinson as Duroy. Now, if that doesn’t make you read it…