June 4, 2012

Bel Ami, by Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami is Maupassant's novella about a young man's rise in Parisian society. Maupassant wrote in the realist tradition, and this is an indictment of practically every sector of French society of his time: the lower classes, the upper classes, the intellectuals, the church. The central character is Georges Duroy, a man who climbs the social ladder of Parisian society on nothing more than good looks, charm, and luck, yet appreciates none of it. Maupassant has a nice way with irony, showing Georges, for example, walking down the street determined to pay back the money his lover gave him and then being sidetracked by a shiny new watch in a shop window. Maupassant also has a deft hand with mediocrity, showing Georges struggling to get past the first line of his newspaper article on Africa.

My favorite part of the novella was Georges's marriage to the beautiful and talented Madeleine, which for a time makes them both extremely happy. Georges begins to resent the jibes of his colleagues about his wife's contributions to his work and comes home one day to quarrel with her. In the space of one conversation, you see the marriage take a fatal turn that sets them off in different directions. It reminds me of Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach, which is essentially a close re-telling of a half hour during a honeymoon that ruins a marriage.

Maupassant has that trait of great writers of writing on many levels: the personal, the sociological, and the political. His exposure of the true nature of politics—a manipulation of public resources for private monetary gain—is the secret spine of the novella and is incorporated perfectly with the other themes.

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