By: Guy de Maupassant
Maupassant’s second novel, Bel-Ami (1885), is the story of a ruthlessly ambitious young man (Georges Duroy, christened ‘Bel-Ami’ by his female admirers) making it to the top in fin-de-siecle Paris. It is a novel about money, sex, and power, set against the background of the politics of the French colonization of North Africa. It explores the dynamics of an urban society uncomfortably close to our own and is a devastating satire of the sleaziness of contemporary journalism.
I was busy with exams last week so I’ve sort of been on a roll reading short stories and novellas to pass the time (because I’m notoriously known for picking up really interesting books, thus derailing me from really studying =P). One of the free classics I found on Feedbooks was Bel-Ami so I decided to check it out. I was vaguely familiar about what the story was about, though throughout the story I did find myself getting confused between the recent adaptation with Uma Thurman and Robert Pattinson and the movie Cherie with Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend for whatever reason. But anyways…
This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.
May contain some minor spoilers ahead!
Bel-Ami was an interesting, surprising and accessible read. If you are a regular reader to this blog, you may have noticed that it’s been a hit and miss for me lately when it comes to French classic literature: there are some that I’ve enjoyed (Alexandre Dumas’ works, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (review)…Comtesse de la Fayette’s the Princess of Cleves if I go a few years back) but then there were others that were lacklustre and difficult for me to get through (Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame du Paris (review) and Honore de Balzac’s Cousin Bette (review) were recent reads that came to mind). Bel Ami caught my attention from the very first page and I was interested by many of the characters that graced these pages.
I mentioned that this story was also a little surprising. I honestly did not suspect that Georges’ storyline would turn out the way that it did. From the first page, Georges did not really come across as someone with an ambitious bent to his character, though I suspect I should’ve known this given his previous career in Algeria and his presence in Paris. Plus, given the circumstances he was in at the beginning of the novel, it made sense that he would “want it all” and move up in society.
However, I did anticipate that his relationship with Madeleine would run the course that it did. As the reader becomes more acquainted with Georges’ character, it also became clear how things would turn out with her. I was surprised however at how low things had gotten and how calculated it became at the end. I was also surprised at how his relationship with Clotilde turned out as I expected things to turn out slightly different (perhaps more similar to his relationship with Madeleine). However, I did find myself chuckling a bit over his situation with Mme Walter–serves him right after messing with all of those characters that he’d have a bit of trouble of his own.
It’s intriguing, my interest and sympathy in Georges waned over the course of the novel as he became embroiled with all of these women, many of whom he used to advance himself in society. I’m surprised there wasn’t a single character who saw him for what he was and pointedly avoided him but most of these characters had their own motivations anyways. I guess it also emphasised at how chameleon he was able to move through society. On the one hand I felt bad for him given where he started and where he was at the start of the novel but the way he moved up…kind of left me all “Huh” at the end. It’s an interesting look at Parisian society though and my losing sympathy in the character didn’t stop me from reading through the rest of the novel and finding out what happened to all of the characters.
Bel-Ami was a quick but interesting novel. Definitely worth checking out if you’re into classic literature and French classics; not only does it have a fascinating character story (though the whirlwind of women that he goes through in this novel can get a bit tedious by the latter half of the story) but its take on Parisian society and social climbing was also interesting.