Ah, le scélérat….rebonjour, mon ami…
I’ve read so many French novels about cads and ladies men that I’m now something of an expert. I am able to recognise the subtle differences of approach these men take, and their various motivations, like a marine biologist who can adroitly identify different breeds of shark, which to a layman would all look the same. Take, for example, Julien Sorel, who conducts his amorous pursuits as though they were a military campaign, who, as I said in my review of The Red and The Black, is all about winning, and isn’t too interested in drinking the victory champagne, if you know what I mean. Then there is Lucien Chardon, who, on the surface, is much like Julien, in that he is young and self-obsessed. Lucien, however, is primarily a careerist, and so uses women as a way of climbing the social ladder. Moreover, he is able to convince himself that he is truly in love and, unlike the manipulative Julien, does not alter his character to suit the circumstances, believing that his own is his best weapon. Finally, consider Valmont, who is more or less a sociopath; he behaves worse than the previous two gentlemen, and does so out of boredom. And what of Georges Duroy? How does he fit into the rogues gallery? Well, he is a most unusual piece.
Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant’s fine novel, begins with the above-named hero skulking around a hot and foul-smelling Paris, evidently frustrated and ill-at-ease. He barges people with his shoulder, he wants to throttle anyone who has more money than him [which is pretty much everyone], he longs for the touch of a woman and for a drink to ease his rasping throat. Maupassant reveals that he was once in the Army and describes his attitude, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, as being like ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and reference is made to shooting Arabs while on duty. One gets the impression that Duroy might be dangerous, physically dangerous, and I must admit that I wasn’t expecting anything quite so dark, so noirish.
“His pockets empty, his blood seething, he was excited by the whispers of the whores on street corners.”
It is a brilliant, thrilling introduction, but it is, I think, slightly misleading. When Duroy gets a new job as a journalist, he is shown to be nervous, lacking in self-confidence, without any great talents or merits. The clearest indication of this is when he attempts to write an article, but finds that he is incapable, that he cannot even start it. Far from being a Machiavellian cad, with supernatural charm, he is pretty much dull-witted; he is slow on the uptake, naïve [or green, as he describes himself, I think]. Moreover, he is, for at least two-thirds of the book, honest or at least transparent. For example, when his mistress, Clotilde, wants to go for a walk he initially says that he would rather stay inside, but when pressed he confesses that he doesn’t have the money to pay for their entertainment. He doesn’t do this because he is trying to elicit sympathy, or manipulate her into giving him money [even though she does] but because he is simply unable to keep his fear or worry to himself.
What is most striking about the first part of the book is that Georges Duroy is thoroughly average, is unexceptional in every way, except perhaps his looks; even his motivations and ambitions are, for want of a better word, standard, are the kind almost everyone has. He wants money in his pocket and a woman…well, don’t we all? Yes, he also wants to get ahead, to raise himself up, but he actually lacks the mental wherewithal to accomplish it on his own. Indeed, every time Duroy does move up in the world, or gets a break, his success is courtesy of someone else, or at least something outside of himself; his victories are, more or less, pure dumb luck. For example, his journalism job comes via an old military friend who works for a paper, his first article is written by his friend’s wife, his standing in the paper is increased when he survives a duel, and so on. For the most part, things happen to Duroy, he doesn’t make them happen.
Perhaps in recognition of his own limitations, Duroy’s character is, until late in the novel, primarily a docile one. It is Madeleine Forestier who advises him to go see the woman he makes his lover; when Madeleine requests that he keep their impending marriage quiet, he acquiesces; and when she tells him to break it off with Clothilde, he again does just as he is told. This may sound exceedingly dull, and I accept that it lacks the sturm and drang of most other 19th century French novels, but it did feel fresh; and the novelty makes it engaging. In fact, one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is how adult, how contemporary the relationships are [again, in the first part]. For example, when Duroy thinks about making love to Madeleine he is told in no uncertain terms that she finds all that preposterous, and will not countenance it. Moreover, when the couple speak of marriage she makes it clear that he will only be accepted if he grants her the freedom to which she is accustomed and treats her as though she is a partner, an ally, not his possession.
It ought to be clear then that Bel Ami is somewhat removed from the grand romanticism and emotional bombast one finds in Balzac et al. If I had to make a comparison I would say that Maupassant’s novel has more in common with the work of Georges Simenon or even Charles Bukowski, that his protagonist is reminiscent of the cowering and gloomy Ferdinand Bardemu, the narrator of Celine’s novels. It is not until some two hundred pages into the book [out of two hundred and ninety] that Duroy begins to exhibit the kind of traits and behaviour one would expect of a immoral scoundrel in a classic French novel. I must admit that my interest waned a little from this point onwards; the dumb-fun-factor is greater, but the story becomes familiar and predictable. Moreover, I did not feel as though the change in Duroy’s character was well handled – it is too abrupt, too extreme – and, ultimately, I got the impression that the author himself wasn’t really sure what was behind it.
After a happy start to his marriage, Duroy begins to resent the fact that his wife once belonged to someone else, and suspects that she cuckolded her first husband. As noted, in the previous two hundred pages one could not say that he has been a nice man, but he certainly hasn’t been a irredeemable bastard, either. Therefore, it is natural to suppose that his jealousy is the reason that he begins to behave as wickedly as he does from this point onwards. However, while I can accept that jealousy could lead someone to thinking ‘fuck it, feelings are for idiots, I’ll have no more of that, and will therefore treat everyone like shit and please myself,’ I don’t see how this feeling is then transformed into an overwhelming, passionate envy, directed towards anyone in a superior position, and a obsessive desire to supplant them and become top-dog. I don’t, either, buy that he would swing from tormenting jealousy to, well, complete indifference where his wife is concerned. More importantly, during this final section of the novel Duroy is able to do things without breaking sweat or batting an eyelid, that before he found difficult or impossible. He lies, he schemes; he shows intelligence, talent, daring, cunning, and so on. Maupassant had spent the greater part of Bel Ami giving the reader the impression that his hero was an average, albeit attractive, schmo who frequently gets lucky, and yet suddenly he is some sort of Devilish Byronic figure who has complete command over himself and everyone else? Come on.
With this in mind, my preferred interpretation is that the catalyst for his caddish manoeuvres is a series of existential confrontations with death. In the first instance, consider his proposal to Madeleine Forestier, which comes while the couple are watching over the dead body of her husband. On the surface, this seems like an outrageous, cynical step, and yet a panicky Duroy appears to be genuinely struck by his own mortality, and the need to make the most of his time on earth, and as such his offer of marriage is hardly an example of cold-hearted cuntishness. There are, in addition, two other incidents, prior to Forestier’s passing, where death is on the agenda: a kind of soliloquy delivered by a colleague, Norbert de Varenne, and a duel. These two passages are, for me, Bel Ami’s finest moments; and both appear to have a profound effect upon Duroy.
The duel is, of course, particularly significant, because it involves, not death as an abstract, as something happening to other people, but the very real threat of it happening to Duroy himself without too much delay. Again, I have to credit Maupassant with a modern outlook, because his hero does not take it in his stride, he does not rise to the challenge, nor welcome the opportunity to defend himself against unfair criticism. No, he does what most of us would do: he gets scared. He isn’t necessarily a coward, but rather a rationalist; he wants to avoid fighting because it is, well, dangerous; he questions the absurd dictates of honour, which have put him in a situation whereby he must fire at a man he has never met and has no real beef with. It isn’t difficult to imagine that if someone has had a brush with death it might spur them on to being more ruthless in pursuit of their desires and dreams, but how much this theory holds weight, when one considers that Duroy’s character does not immediately change in the way that it does following the jealousy chapters, I don’t know. In any case, being someone who is terrified of dying I understand myself how motivating that fear can be; in fact, I consider it to be responsible for a great many of my actions, both positive and negative. For what it is worth, the philosopher Martin Heidegger proposed that one should always keep death, or one’s mortality, in mind, that this was the only way to ensure an authentic existence.
“We breathe, sleep, drink, eat, work and then die! The end of life is death. What do you long for? Love? A few kisses and you will be powerless. Money? What for? To gratify your desires. Glory? What comes after it all? Death! Death alone is certain.”
I have spent much of this review focusing on the particulars of Duroy’s character, without, as yet, saying anything about the wider significance of the action. To this end, John Paul Sartre said of Maupassant’s creation that ‘his rise testifies to the decline of a whole society.’ If I am honest, I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this. What Duroy’s ultimate victory suggests to me is that the structure of French society, maybe western society as a whole, was changing; but whether that was for the better or worse I cannot say. Duroy comes, one must remember, from low stock; his parents are tavern owners, and he frequently refers to them as peasants. As the novel reaches a climax Georges, in a sense, has infiltrated the upper reaches of French society, and laid his hat there. Maupassant seems to be suggesting that he is one of the new breed of men, the nouveau riche, who will usher out the old aristocracy, taking their money, their positions, and their titles. It isn’t just Duroy either; the biggest winner in the novel is the Jewish financier, M. Walter, who in some kind of stock market scam earns millions. Does unscrupulous common men making all the money and having all the power testify to a decline? It is certainly a sign of the times, is more in keeping with the world we live in now than that of privileged barons and lords, but I’m less than convinced that it is a bad thing, certainly in comparison to the alternative.