Guy de Maupassant: Bel-Ami (1885)

When I used to think of Maupassant, I used to think of short stories. That was all I had read by him so far and because he is so excellent at it – probably one of the very best short story writers you can read – I thought that his novels might be pale in comparison. I was wrong. After having read Bel-Ami, I think that he might very well be one of the best writers in any genre. It’s one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t name one single flaw. As much as I like Balzac there is always this and that, minor things, sure, but still, some imperfections. Not with Maupassant. What also surprised me is that this book could have been written nowadays. The society has changed, the world has changed but the way he writes about love, sex, power, money, careers… It’s outspoken and modern.

More than anything Bel-Ami is a character portrait paired with the portrait of a society, the Parisian high society. Georges Duroy, who receives the nick name Bel-Ami from the daughter of his lover Mme Marelle, is one of the most unlikable characters of French literature. An arriviste who has only one striking feature, his good looks, and one talent, the talent to know how to use people or, to be more precise, women.

At the beginning of the  novel he is working as a clerk and hardly knows how to pay his meals. He was a sergeant in the colonial army and served in Algeria. One evening, strolling down the boulevards of Paris and debating with himself how to use his last francs, he bumps into Forrestier, a former comrade. Forrestier has become a journalist in a new and not very respected newspaper which belongs to a Jewish man, Mr Walter. Forrestier is married to a beautiful and very intelligent woman and lives a cushy life. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why he chose to help Bel-Ami but he does and in doing so sets in motion the spectacular ascension of Georges Duroy. Forrestier opens the door to his house and helps him to a position as assistant journalist. Although, just like Forrrestier himself, he isn’t capable of writing one coherent piece, he will become a famous journalist. I’m not going to tell you how, you have to read it to find out.

One trait I found interesting in the novel is to see why people invite other people into their houses. Women invite Bel-Ami because they want him close, they are in love with him. Men on the other hand invite him because he doesn’t have a lot and they all love to display their riches. The women in this society are all easily seduced and the men become victims of their vanity.

While he is still somewhat naive but envious at the beginning of the novel, once he has understood how easily he gets access to the high society and can achieve almost anything through these two weaknesses, the easy seduction of women and the vanity of their men, he turns into a manipulative and calculating machine. Using one woman after the other, duping one husband after the other, he ascends the social ladder with dizzying speed.

While Bel-Ami is the central character, the women and their husbands are not less well-drawn. One perfect little scene after the other shows Bel-Ami “at work”. It’s amazing that he becomes a famous journalist although he isn’t capable of writing. And later he even becomes a politician despite the fact that he is clueless and knows nothing about politics. He is just clever enough to know who does and to get to their knowledge via the one or the other woman.

Bel-Ami is vain, he is self-centered and cares only about his own pleasure, power and money. He seduces people and uses them and when they are no longer of any value he discards them which leads to some fantastic scenes. While he is unlikable, one has to be fair, he doesn’t force women, he seduces them and it’s ultimately their weakness which leads him to success. Men like Bel-Ami still exist and things have not changed much in our society in that regard. I still see women falling for this type of guy who has nothing to offer but looks and sweet talk. And an erotic appeal. Let’s face it, without that erotic appeal not even Bel-Ami would have gotten that far. It’s obvious in the novel, and quite explicit too, that the women  do not fall for him because he is bright or because they want to spend hours gazing into his eyes. They want to go to bed with him. Even the very young ones like Mme Marelle’s daughter who invented the nickname Bel-Ami, cannot hold back and want physical contact.

Maupassant’s novel is one of those that should be read by people who think 19th Century literature is old-fashioned and has nothing to offer to contemporary readers. It could open a door to a whole new reading experience. 

Bel-Ami is an entirely captivating and well-told story, combining descriptions of opulent interiors and detailed character portraits with the analysis of a society addicted to power and fame and one man who knows how to exploit it all.