“Envy, bitter envy, was permeating his soul drop by drop, like a poison that tainted all his pleasures and made his life hateful.”
“She had expected him to be overjoyed, and was annoyed by this coolness. ‘You really are incredible. Nothing satisfies you now.'”
There are moments with this book when you are trying very hard to like the main character Duroy. As a journalist you want him to fall in love with the written word and understand the power and attraction of informing others and being a man in the know.
Unfortunately all that seems to motivate Duroy is money. The power is a secondary thing that is gained as a result of the quest for more money. Nothing is ever enough and the son of peasant tavern owners in Normandy all too quickly forgets his past. His lucky break is also quickly forgotten and a growing sense of deserving money and influence starts to grow in his heart.
Duroy is almost blind to the pain and hurt he causes others starting with his mistresses and then moving on to his wife. He marries well above his position and manages to enter into a social world that was completely beyond him when he was a clerk for the Northern railway company.
But as his heart hardens and he sets his sights on greater prizes the reader also starts to lose support for ‘Bel-Ami’ the handsome man who is able to conquer hearts.
But there are moments of dislike here reserved for journalism as a whole rather than just the general power hungry social climber as the exchange between Duroy and the journalist Saint-Potin show after they have been sent to interview prominent Indian and Chinese officials.
“Saint-Potin began to laugh: ‘You’re still very naive, aren’t you! Do you really believe that I’m going to ask that Chinaman and that Indian what they think of England? As if I didn’t know better than they do what they’re supposed to think for the readers of La Vie francaise! I’ve already interviewed hundreds of those Chines, persians, Hindus, Chileans, Japanese and suchlike. As far as I’m concerned they all tell me the same thing. I simply have to take the article I wrote most recently and copy it word for word. What does change, naturally, is their appearance, their names, their titles, their age, their staff.'”
But once his feet are under the table Duroy manages to navigate a path to becoming not only wealthy but in terms of relationships spoilt for choice of mistresses. But he fails to see love in any real shape, even from his parents, and instead keeps moving forward with those pound eyes in those eyes.
He fears failure like others fear death and that spurs him on to set his sights on power and money and to gain it in such a ruthless manner.
“A confused, immense, crushing terror was weighing upon Duroy’s soul, the terror of those infinite, inevitable nothingness, endlessly destroying each fleeting, miserable life. Already, he was bowing his head before its threat.”
The fact that you are not only inducted into the world of Duroy and can grasp the issues of the day as France argues with itself over its imperial ambitions is because of the way De Maupassant builds up the picture. It starts slowly as Duroy takes his first tentative steps into society but by the end as the issues become more complex the reader is able to navigate round this world of newspaper, foreign ministers and mistresses and still come to the conclusion that Duroy is dangerous.
Just as in Pierre et Jean what you admire here, along with the plot, is the way that De Maupassant is able to serve up such wonderful characters. Just as with the other book the bare bones of the story are reasonably simple enough the magic comes when he describes how certain characters react to those circumstances.
Politicis and journalism might have changed but what keeps Bel-Ami timeless is the master class in describing human behavior and then motivation of those captivated and driven by wealth and power.
The rise from the poverty of a humble clerks position to a p[lace on a Parisian newspaper is handed to Georges Duroy because of an old military connection with a fellow journalist.
Having served in Africa the ex-soilder has left his peasant roots and headed to paris to make his fortune but he is getting nowhere until he bumps into an old friend and manages to get a lucky break into journalism.
The world of newspapers is described as one of low morales, low effort and a position used almost solely for personal gain. As he enters deeper into that world, taking a society mistress to bulk up his ambitions, Duroy starts to change to become greedy.
Just how far the worlds of power and politics will impact him remains to be seen…
“At first he thought she had suffocated herself. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he turned her over, still clutching the pillow to hide her face and to bite into to stop herself from screaming.”
This short story stars with the author spending a bit of time debating exactly what a novel should set out to do. In an article addressing critics De Maupassant argues that even if you don’t start from the very start of a characters life you can project what they feel by mood and gestures. This psychological interpretation is one that allows him to start a story at any given point and then let the characters explain themselves as they react to events.
He does exactly that with this tightly written story of two brothers divided by an old secret that emerges almost innocently but with devastating consequences.
Pierre and Jean are competitive brothers, one a doctor and the other a lawyer and they are introduced on a boat trip with their mother, father and an attractive young widow. Instantly you suspect the story is being set up as a love rivalry tale. But things change when they return from their boat trip to discover that the family lawyer has been trying to get hold of them to inform them that Jean has become the heir to a large amount of money left by and old family friend.
Pierre does his best to suppress his jealousy but as he talks to his old chemist friend and a casual girlfriend who works as a barmaid their thoughts – that Jean must have been the son of the dead man – eats away at him.
As Pierre struggles to control his fear that the rumours are right and his knowledge that he will appear jealous if he says anything Maupassant manages to convey the torture the characters are going through by slammed doors, glances at dinner as well as dialogue. He takes you into the thoughts of the characters but never in a way that makes it appear as if he is trying to make the reader lean one way or the other.
Without giving the ending away it’s fair to say that the main action here takes place inside the heart and heads of the triangle of brothers and mother. Her mistake to love the wrong man comes back to haunt her and as her family is torn apart she seems to be the main victim.
As an introduction to Maupassant, which this is for me, you start with his thoughts on what makes a novel and you quickly realise you are dealing with a writer who likes to operate in three dimensions and get behind the skin into the brain and heart of his characters.