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.

66 thoughts on “Guy de Maupassant: Bel-Ami (1885)

  1. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels, Caroline. Hard to pick a favourite scene but the duel scene is hard to beat, and the really funny thing is that right after I read Bel Ami I read a Russian novel in which officers discussed how duelling is only done properly by the Russians–everyone else is an amateur. It made me think of Bel Ami’s great moment. Well not so great.

    I think in the creation of Georges Duroy Maupassant created a seminal character for literature–along the same lines of the monumental Lovelace. I’m not saying that they are the same type but that they have the same presence in literature. HUGE. Iconic.

    • I really agree, I wonder why it took me so long to read this. I always thought of him as a short story writer, that’s what we were taught at school, what most people I know think. The duel scene is great, it’s true. I need to watch the movie. I couldn’t say which is the best scene either, I quite liked those when he tires of Mme Walter, the way he describes his growing disgust is cruel but funny too.

        • That’s interesting. shadowperrator posted on Le Horla yesterady after she read my Maupassant review. I think it’s extremely interesting and a very dark story. I often tend to forget when reading his other books that he was quite ill. Isn’t there a Gogol story called Diary of a Madman? I love Vincent Price’s voice was thinking of picking one of his movies for RIP. The House on Haunted Hill should be somewhere and White Oleander.

          • There not only is a Gogol story named “Diary of a Madman,” I believe there’s also a de Maupassant story, only 3 pages long, also called “The Diary of a Madman,” in which a much-lauded official suddenly turns after a life of honor to a life of crime (rather, after he is dead, a fragment of his diary is discovered which relates his crimes and his longing to do more). It’s not the best of de Maupassant’s stories, in fact it’s rather inferior by comparison with some of the others, but it does exist, fragmentary in its own way just as the discovered “diary” is.

            • Maybe they combined more that one story in the movie.
              I’ve read the Gogol and from what I remember it’s quite good.
              I have to see if I got the Maupassant story of the same name.

  2. As usual your commentary is so well written and insightful Caroline. Often as in this case I want to immediately start reading this book.

    You wrote- “the way he writes about love, sex, power, money, careers… It’s outspoken and modern.”

    Though not universally true, I find that this is the case with many great writers of the past. What is amazing is how little people have changed over time.

    • Thanks, Brian. This book really is fanatstic and I really don’t know why it took me so long to read it.
      People really haven’t chnaged much and I agree quite a lot of 19th Century literature deals with he topics but not the way he writes. It’s very outspoken, I would know of anything similar in a British or German novel of the time. I remember when we read Effi Briets last year which is about an dultery, nobody knew whether they had really done anything and when. Here you know without the tiniest doubt.

  3. My goodness, the despicable qualities of George/Bel-Ami sound quite applicable to today! I had wanted to read this for the Paris in July 2012, but of course, I ran out of time. It is still on my list, and all the more so because of your wonderful review. I’ll be thinking about what you said about why people invite others into their homes for quite awhile. As a deeply rooted introvert (preferring my own company? Not that as much as I can’t be bothered with others) I’ve often wondered what makes people love to be social. It can’t always be attributed to their altruistic nature, can it?

    • Thanks, Bellezza. A lot of the negative things in the book can be found today. I’m an introvert too and think twice about inviting people. I think there are many who are genuinely interested in company – the motive might still not be altruistic, it is, very often, simply because they cannot stand their own company. Or that’s how I see it. In this novel it’s very often to display expensive things.
      I hope you will get to read it. I’m interested to see how you will like it.

  4. I’ve heard mixed things about Bel-Ami, Caroline, but I’ll have to move it up the list of my virtual TBR after your enthusuastic description here (+ what Guy says in his comment is an added bonus). This isn’t “scandalous” like a Huysmans novel, though, right? Just scandalous in the way Bel-Ami uses people? I only know Maupassant from a handful of stories, most of which I quite enjoyed.

    • It’s not Husyman’s scandalous, no. It’s also scandalous because he is a Gigolo. He isn’t called a gigolo but he is paid for his favours one way or the other and in this is the male version of Nana, I suppose (although that’s still on my piles and needs to be read). I would bet you’d find a lot of it quite amusing.

  5. I just bought this, so I’m glad you like it a lot. Nana is a great book. I had to read it for my uni studies and it was one of the better *had to read* books on the syllabus.

    • I’m sure you will like it although some things he says about women, some generalizations, are a bit cringe-worthy. That’s were the book has aged but it’s minor compared to the overall achievement. I’ll read Nana soon as well. Guy wrote somewhere that thye are equally good.

  6. I think you helped me decide on one of my reading projects for next year. This novel and two others by him are on my list. Next year I hope to focus more on non-English novels. And I love character studies.

    • You get a lot of charcater portraits here. And he is a great charcater. Unlikable but true to life. I’m very curious to see what project that will be. I have another two of his novels here. One is Une vie. That’s certainly on your list and Bel-Ami and probably Pierre et Jean. That’s one I don’t have but I need to get it.

      • The three on the list are: Pierre and Jean, A Woman’s Life, and Bel-Ami. I wish I could read them in French like you. It has been years since I took French classes and it would be torture now to try to translate on my own. I wish I was more like my uncle, who knows nine languages. He also spent 30 something years in school, which I couldn’t afford but would love to.

        My project won’t be too involved. I want to create a list of books by non-English or American writers (not that I don’t like them, but want to broaden my horizons more). So much of my blog is about travel, I want to “travel” more via my readings. Let me know if you have any suggestions. I already get many via your book reviews. I will be a little limited by my library selection, but I’m sure I can find the bigger names. And there are many used bookstores in London.

        • A Woman’s Life is Une vie. I wouldn’t start with that, I think it’s quite bleak.
          I’ll think about books and let you know.
          I rea such a lot of English and American books because that’s what I read far less in the past.
          You would like to focus on classics and modern calssics, I suppose?

              • Louise Penny is also very popular in the audio books section–our library has almost everything she’s written on audio, and my mom checked them out each and every one until she had them all read. They were mysteries, if I recollect accurately, and reminded her of the writings of P.D. James.

                • Yes, she writes mysteries. I’m not familiar enough with P.D. James to compare them. The setting in Louise Penny’s novel is wonderful. Makes you want to live in Canada – until you’re there and it’s cold.

                  • Yes, I think Louise Penny is from Quebec, and I understand it’s cold there. But I never went there, spending the majority of the 6 or so years I was there in Toronto. It’s sometimes colder in the winter, with a few ice storms and stuff, but basically even with the milder temperature you’ve got that lovely lake breeze to keep things even-temperatured (that is, it’s not a cold “lake effect” like in Chicago, but balmy even in early spring). I’d love to live there now and have all that city excitement with the cleaner environment, too.

                    • That’s rare and sounds like Toronto is very nice. Usually it’s chilly and humid near lakes but my step-mom is from Helsinki and she says although the temperatures are much lower that in central Europe, it didn’t feel as cold as it was dry and there is also a big lake.
                      I have romantic ideas about Canada but the cold scares me a bit. I’m not much use when the temperature drops. But the snow would ne nice. We have hardly any snow in winter.

    • If you haven’t read his short stories and novellas yet you will find many great ones, Boule de Suif, La Maison Tellier, Le Horla. All fantastic (those are some of the longer ones) but he is good in the very short form as well. Bel-Ami is well worth reading. Very different from Proust though.

    • It is great, isn’t it? I seem to remember you liked Nana a lot too. Maybe I shouldn’t compare them as I haven’t read Nana yet. For some reason I always think they complement each other.
      He is an amazing short story writer. Economical but so evocative.

    • I’m sure you will like it, it is so well written. I don’t know why I thought he wasn’t such a god novelist. I suppose his short stories overshadow the rest but this book is as good as any of them.

  7. Thank you, Caroline, for the recommendation to “Bel-Ami.” I am very far behind in both reading and posting because I am trying to get caught up with both at once, and it’s a frustrating combination. But as soon as I get a chance, I’d like to cover this book. I too have mostly been familiar with Maupassant as a writer of short stories.

    • I hope you will get a chance to read it. I’m really enthusiastic about it. I need to read his other novels as well now. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on it if you read it. If you like his short stories, I’m sure you will like it.

  8. reading your review, I know it’s not my usual read but your review totally glued me im. GReat review, Caroline.

    He sounds like a casanova, the kind of person I don’t understand. Your description of the book really sounds like the book came from nowadays writer…so full of deception.

    Is it the same Bel-Ami in the movie by Patkinson (or something like that…you know the one who plays in twillight)? What’s bel-ami means anyway?

    • Thanks, Novia. 🙂
      He is a Casanova but more than that he even gets paid for his “services”.
      The movie with pattison is based on this book. Guy watched and said although it is quite different from the book it is watchable. Bel-Ami means “beautiful friend”. They all use it in the book without realizing, he might be beautiful but he is no friend.

  9. I’m a fan of Maupassant generally, although this novel is very dark and very, very cynical. I might have wanted to see more richness in the characterisation, more mixed feelings. But it is a powerful book with a modern feel. Have you seen the recent film that has been made of it?

    • It is cynical indeed.
      I think considering his age the charcaterisation is spot on. People like Bel-Ami need to get older for their charcater to become more complex. At his age, I suppose he isn’t 30 yet, they think they are invincible. Once old age sets in some frailties are added to the mix.
      I haven’t seen the movie yet but I’d like to watch it.

  10. Ooh, I have this on my TBR pile – yet another book I look forward to reading! – I bought it because I wanted to watch the movie, I’m very curious to see how Robert Pattinson will pull this off.
    Thanks for the review and for leaving out spoilers; I wasn’t sure if I should read your post but now I’m glad I did.

    • I hope you will like it as much as I did. I’m still stunned how modern it feels.
      I always try to avoid spoilers as best as I can when I write a review.
      I want to watch the movie soon but I’m glad I’ve read it first. But now I have a problem with the cast. Not with Pattison, he’s OK but 2 of the women are badly chosen in my view.
      You’ll let me know what you think once you’ve read it.

  11. Nice review, Caroline! I have read some of Maupassant’s short stories, but didn’t know that he has written novels too. From your review, it looks like this is a wonderful book. It is amazing how relevant 19th century literature is to our times, as you have said. I will look for this book. Thanks for the wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I’m pretty sure that if you liked his short stories you would like this as well. I would say he deserves to be as famus for his novels as he is for his short stories. I hope you will like it.

  12. That’s one book that made me hate myself because despite all his calculating ways, ruthlessness, and selfishness, I wanted Duroy to succeed and not lose in the last cliff-hanger of the book. And I thought what was wrong with me that I could root for such a man who is such a scoundrel and realised it was the power of the pen of Maupassant.

    Very nice review.

    • Thanks, neer. I think I can understand that reaction. I think one can be equally disgusted and fascinated by him and at the end of the day, he just uses what is there which is the flaws of people. They are all vain and unfaithful.

    • It’s not just Maupassant, though, you know? My most recent experience of the phenomenon of sympathizing with a villain was in reading Ian McEwan’s book “Solar.” This sort of sympathy for an anti-hero often happens when the story is told from his or her point of view–it’s all about point of view. I imagine a story would have to be truly horrific to dispel this quality of sympathy entirely.

      • I can’t really explain why we sometimes like a bad person. I hadn’t thought of the point of view before but it’s true, although not a first person narrative, it feesl like one and we identify with Bel-Ami in this case, and with the protagonist of Solar in yours.

  13. You make me want to go grab my copy of this book off my shelf right now and start reading. Maybe I’ll at least go and grab it, though, to look it over. 🙂 I have read one of Maupassant’s collections of short stories and agree he is a wonderful storyteller. I sort of like unlikeable characters (sometimes anyway). They can be really intriguing to read about.

    • I’m sure you will like it. It’s such a smooth book. You start it and read for a while and without noticing the 400 pages are read.
      Neer’s comment is spot on. To some extent one roots for him. He’s so audacious. Wouldn’t we all want to be more like him sometimes? He really knows how to promote himself.

  14. Oddly I haven’t read this one (and my spinster teacher chose Une Vie when we studied one of Maupassant’s novel) but it’s the kind of classics you know about even if you haven’t read them. I have it at home.

    I should read it. I’m very curious about what it tells about the society of that time and about ours. So Bel-Ami is more a gigolo than a don juan?

    • Yes, much more a gigolo. I loved it and I?m sure you will like it as well. I’ve had Une Vie for years but was never that tempted. I suppose they are very different but I’ll still read it soon.

  15. I have his Nana on my book shelf, which sounds like a woman version of Bel-ami. It’s an old, tattered copy, which is falling apart and practically unreadable. I really should get a newer edition and read it.

  16. we recently watched the newest movie version and then I wanted to read the book, to fill in the details. I thought the women were great in the movie and the book — I know it is about him, but I much more enjoyed following the female characters.

  17. Pingback: Best Books 2012 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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