Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant is a fun romp through the bachelor pads, newspaper boardrooms, restaurants and theatres of glamorous, late 19th century Paris. It is the story of Georges Duroy, a provincial, peasant-born ex-soldier who rises to the edges of the heights of power (with the concluding implication that he is still very much on the way up) through an impressive campaign of lying, cheating, shagging and stealing. He seduces strong, powerful, intelligent, women, moving on to better-connected, better-looking lovers as his career develops. It is very much a fantasy in that respect – penniless nobody gains power, prestige and wealth with very little intrinsic skill bar good looks, amorality and a GORGEOUS moustache.*
This translation is crisp, very readable, and Maupassant’s renowned pacing and wit shine through. It was funny, it was involving, and is another literary evocation of Paris in the past being THE place to go for life and love.
The settings of the story alter quite dramatically as the narrative goes on – we meet the character broke, living in an awful bedsit, no clothes, no plans, no prospects, having to cadge fucks from prostitutes, but by the end he’s hooking up with newspaper barons’ wives, receiving the Légion d’honneur and socialising with the French cabinet in the city’s finest drawing rooms.
It is fun, a picaresque romp that touches on the big themes of mortality and selfhood, but ultimately an enjoyable text that moves and shakes and shudders through various hilarious scenarios with witty aplomb. Very straightforward, stylistically, not at all introspective, so though it’s not really to my tastes, I did enjoy it.
* Yes, that sounds like an oxymoron to me too.