Bel-Ami – Guy de Maupassant

14 January 2010
Chapters 1-5…
…i.e. roughly the first half of Part 1. And blimey. The Paris that Maupassant describes is a nasty place, full of people you wouldn’t want to meet. Maybe it’s because I’m also reading Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, written only 30 years earlier but on a different planet, that I’m coming over all Victorian about these Continentals. But I don’t think so: Maupassant’s world really is one of the circles of hell.

And Georges Duroy is right in the middle of it. He isn’t at first: he’s on the edge, to an uncomfortable degree, in a low-paid job that leaves him short of cash every month. He’s a fairly nasty piece of work at the start – early on Maupassant lets us know about how his army unit used to provoke skirmishes with the Arabs just so they’d have some killing to do – but at least he lives within his means. As a relative newcomer to Paris he’s a lost soul, doesn’t know how to get by. And, in the chapters that follow, he’s a kind of innocent abroad. Kind of, because this innocent is self-centred, dishonest and shallow. It’s only a good job that everybody else is.

What Duroy needs to do is learn, and he gets on track through a series of happy accidents. He bumps into Forestier, an old army colleague, who gets him a job on the newspaper he works for; he has dinner with the same man and discovers women of a certain class find him charming; he sees – or thinks he sees – that the edifice of high society is built on hypocrisy and sham. His first encounters with journalists lead him to believe that nobody ever does anything (card games, cup-and-ball tournaments, made-up interviews) but that’s part of the sham: really, people do work. Or they make deals, get others to do the difficult stuff, delegate. Forestier lets him ask his wife to ‘help’ him with his first article. She dictates it – but it doesn’t stop Duroy thinking he was the one who really wrote it…. Until, after three attempts to write the next one on his own are all rejected he visits her again – to discover her dictating to her husband, the man who had been making him feel small about his lack of success. Is every one of them a man of straw?

This is in about the second chapter, and I wondered if that was it for Duroy’s career. But, in a few paragraphs, Maupassant tells us he learns how to be a reporter and get by at the paper. It seems almost perfunctory – as though Maupassant is impatient to get to the interesting stuff: sex.

It takes a reader of 19th Century English novels by surprise that someone writing in 1885 would be so explicit. It starts off fairly gently at the dinner party: low-cut and figure-hugging dresses and meaningful glances. Next comes the visit from the sugar-daddy to Forestier’s wife (the innocent Duroy doesn’t recognise him as such, but we do)… and, at last, Duroy’s visit to Madame de Marelle. This leads to an invitation to dinner and an affair that lasts the rest of the long Chapter 5: a passionate kiss in the cab, lunch a deux (including a rather intimately described game of footsie), and then… soon she’s visiting his seedy room often enough for his tenement neighbours to call her his tart.

In fact, Maupassant makes it clear that it’s not Madame who’s the tart. When their nocturnal excursions into the city’s dives and dance-halls start to cost him too much and he’s run out of creditors, he feels forced into a corner. Honest, he really doesn’t want to tell her how broke he is – Maupassant makes it clear that Duroy is mortified by the admission – but as soon as he does she leaves him some money. He takes umbrage at her charity – but she’s already left, and this time we don’t believe him when he pretends to himself that he won’t spend it. (Their love-nest is also provided by her. Did I forget to mention that? Don’t get me started on rooms and what they tell you about people: Mme de Marelle’s unkempt apartment, Duroy’s mucky room papered over with cheap prints.) He’s always been a kept man… and he’s ok with that.

But reader, if we’re starting to accept that this is just the way it goes if you want to make your way in this dirty world… there’s a wonderful set-piece scene at the Folies Bergeres at the end of the chapter. Y’see, Duroy still hasn’t quite got it right with women yet. When the prostitute he still regularly sees nods to him he cuts her dead. Mistake. She genuinely likes him – all women seem to like him – and she takes her revenge by going for him and for Mme de Marelle at the same time. The scales fall from the eyes of his lover/meal ticket – he’s been paying for the tart with her money! – and she leaves, humiliated to the core. He chases after her, but it’s no use. Serves him right.

One last thing. Meals. At the start of the novel Duroy is calculating how many he can have before the next payday. (Not enough.) Then comes the series of society meals he has, marking the main highlights of both his social climbing and his discovery of the brave new world of society women: in this world, eating well is always closely linked to the promise of sex. Maupassant turns up the intimacy scale each time: from large dinner-party, via a cosy foursome with its risqué talk, to lunch tete-a-tete…. After that Madame – Clotilde by now – likes to slum it: her own particular bag is dressing as a worker and eating in their cheap cafes. (Her dressing down is the simple opposite of the dressing up that everybody else does. Clothes are always a disguise in this book.) It’ll end in tears – oh, it already has.

17 January
Chapters 6-8…
…to the end of Part 1, half-way through the novel. And Maupassant is really going for it. In Chapter 6 we get Duroy’s continuing rise: in case we’d forgotten, we’re reminded that he’s only been at the newspaper ‘a few months’ and now he’s got an editorial job. It’s all about contacts – specifically, it’s about the way he schmoozes the women he meets.

Being an innocent soul he thinks he’s blown it with Clotilde… and he really is broke. Worse, as far as the Parisian moral universe is concerned, he’s stuck in an obsolete ethical mindset. It’s only a good job that he’s got no stamina for the moral fight: we know as soon as he makes them that his resolutions to pay back Clotilde all the money she’s given to him will come to nothing. But it was sweet of him to have had the idea that such a thing would ever be expected in this world. But what to do?

How about trying Forestier’s wife again, the one who wrote his first article? The meeting is only short, but it’s one of Maupassant’s set pieces. She isn’t at all bothered that he tries it on with her, and simply tells him he hasn‘t a chance. However. She‘s charmed by his offer of friendship and help, particularly as her husband’s health is becoming dodgier by the day – and she doesn‘t reject his bold suggestion that, if she were ever to be free – as in, widowed – he‘d be, er, there for her. You bet… but that’s the long term. More usefully in the short term, she points him in the direction of the woman he should really go and see: the editor’s wife. He makes up a hamper of fruit, sends it to her, and gets a swift reply about when she’s at home. So he goes, charms her with a (let’s face it, unconvincingly witty) series of remarks about the Academie – and is both promoted and gets an invitation to dinner within a couple of days. Meteoric or what?

At the dinner party (we’re still in Chapter 6) he’s mortified to hear Clo’s voice behind him. What should he do? Leave? (Running away is nearly always his first thought – but usually he recognises how bad it would look and stays. But we never make the mistake of judging him stronger than he really is.) What an innocent he is: she talks to him as though nothing had ever come between them, and after pressing her foot, and leg, and hip against him at dinner… well, guess. A few pages later he’s taken over their little love-nest as his new apartment – he can afford it now – and he‘s a regular guest at hers. Her husband‘s back, for weeks, but that‘s ok: Duroy charms him with farming talk: sometimes it‘s handy to have a background in the sticks.

This doesn’t take three chapters. What really does is the Big Theme Maupassant introduces us to after the promising dinner party. We don’t know how big until the end of Part 1, but never mind that now. De Varennes, the old poet who works on the paper, walks through the dark streets with Duroy – and he’s so obsessed with death he goes on about it for pages. You can imagine the discouraging effect on Duroy – and we wonder what Maupassant is up to. There’s a compelling biographical motive for this author to insert a handy memento mori at some point – he was syphilitic and did not expect to live a long life – but I think there’s a more interesting reason. It confirms what we’ve begun to suspect already: just because Maupassant is describing what an easy ride it is for this young man in this amoral world, it doesn’t mean he approves. These characters might treat life as some kind of cosmic joke, but just you wait….

Duroy doesn’t have to wait long. Maupassant uses all his powers to get us inside the head of a man who thinks he might be dead tomorrow. All night Duroy’s mind is in turmoil as he contemplates the outcome of – of the duel he’s accidentally got himself into. It’s a McGuffin, there solely to keep the theme of death in the air…. But it works. Duroy survives – an unintended outcome being even greater kudos at the newspaper – but he‘s had his dark night of the soul.

That was Chapter 7, so it‘s time for Chapter 8. Had enough of death yet? Tough: Forestier, whose perpetual cough has transformed into full-scale consumption, is dying. He and his highly desirable wife have had to go to the South of France – and guess what? She sends for Duroy. The rest of the chapter is a masterpiece of – what? – a kind of authorial duplicity. All the time, as her husband lurches down the dusty road, Mme F and Duroy do a kind of stately dance. She was the one who invited him, but it’s Duroy who leads. He pops in occasional reminders of what he said months before – and, after the vividly described death (tell you later) he more or less pops the question. Of course, he’s learnt enough about the rules of the dance to pretend he’s not really doing any such thing, but she’s a mistress of it as well and, in code, says yes. If he’s willing to let her behave as she always has – i.e. take lovers – she… well, she couldn’t possibly say with her husband hardly cold yet. However, at one key moment (at the end of their night’s vigil) Maupassant refers to her as Madeleine instead of Madame Forestier. Could it be any clearer?

The death of Forestier is horrible. The world these characters inhabit might be the wryly skewed product of a mordant satirist, but he knows how to get right into the realities of recognizable humanity. De Varenne’s morbid musings, Duroy’s terror in the face of possible death – and now, the reduction of the once arrogant Forestier to pathetic, mewling horror is, well, horrifying. An unexpected memento mori a couple of chapters ago has mutated into a ghastly meditation on the inexorability of the path that all our lives follow. At this point, half-way through the narrative, the trajectory of Duroy’s rise has soared past Forestier’s on the way down. But – but I don’t need to say anything else just now. Just think on.

19 January
Part 2, Chapters 1-4
Duroy’s star continues to rise during these chapters: Duroy, the Womanising Years. Or months. He keeps going one step further: pursuit of, and marriage to, the grieving widow then, as Chapter 4 comes to an end, for the first time in Paris he’s having sex with a woman who hasn’t been chasing him as fast as he’s been chasing her. A conquest, by Jove. And meanwhile, on the newspaper, the editor whose wife he’s about to shag tells him he’s ‘an invaluable man’. Is there no limit to the possibilities for this man? By Chapter 4 he and his wife are holding regular political soirees attended by everyone who matters and, as the government lurches towards an international crisis, politicians read his editorials with trepidation.

Phew. There are still nearly 100 pages to go, and fortunes can go down as well as up…. But in the world that Maupassant has created, perhaps a selfish oaf like Duroy who is only good at following his own appetites can go to the top and stay there. In a satire of a system Maupassant obviously finds tawdry and venal, what’s to stop the whole of Parisian society – cultural, political, artistic – turning into the personal fiefdom of a nobody from nowhere?

A few things, in fact. I haven’t forgotten the two-and-a-half chapter memento mori that forms the last section of Part 1. And Maupassant sows seeds of doubt all the time that Duroy is going from one triumph to the next. For me, the most important one is that almost as soon as Part 1 begins, Duroy behaves as though he’s got nothing more to learn. His changing relationship with Mme Forestier in Chapters 1 and 2 demonstrates this. At first, she expects to call all the shots, and does so. She decides the date and style of the wedding, how they will live – just as she did with her first husband, as it turns out – even the more aristocratic-sounding name he will call himself. He gives up Mme Marelle, presumably because he thinks that’s how it’s done. His best stratagems might have let him succeed in winning ‘Madeleine’, but once he’s got her he defers to her. At first.

It starts to unravel on the way to his parents’ house, and carries on unravelling while they’re there. The train journey is full of foreboding, with Maupassant describing nightfall as the ‘death throes’ of a beautiful day. Madeleine wants to control the course of their intimacy, and tries to push her new husband away in the compartment. But it’s as though she begins to realise she’s bitten off more than she can chew, and she gives up trying to repulse him. The sex they have feels sordid, for both of them. In the English translation they ‘copulate’. In the original French it’s ‘un accouplement violent et maladroit’. Gulp. And it doesn’t get any better at the ancestral hovel. His mother hates her, the room is stifling – and when Du Roy (as he is now called) takes his wife for a walk in the woods she is terrified. In the wild forest she seems to be overcome by a sense of the feral world she’s stepped into – and she insists on scurrying back to the safety of Paris early next morning.

This is Maupassant, unusually in this novel, making the landscape represent something else. Later in the summer, on a drive through the Bois de Boulogne, she speaks of how much safer it is, because it’s finite. And this is the very conversation that sees the beginning of a growing estrangement between them. They row because, like the dark forest (geddit?) he isn’t staying within boundaries she recognises. He doesn’t play by her rules any more: he insists on asking her questions about whether she was faithful with Forestier. She’s not telling, and he doesn’t ever let it drop: from then on her first husband is ‘that cuckold Forestier’, and she hates it. (He’s doing it as much out of hurt pride as anything else: at work his colleagues ‘accidentally’ keep calling him by the dead man’s name.)

Actually, he does let it drop. He’s having a point-scoring little row with her when he gets a message from the editor’s wife, the one he’s been pursuing like Pepe-le-Pew pursues any passing she-cat. She didn’t mean what she said about never wanting to see him again (she’d escaped that day by forcing a priest to hear her confession and had felt temporarily strengthened), and would he meet her next day. Result…! His wife has just asked him not to call her dead husband that name and, smiling after reading the message, he says he’ll never do it again.

Maupassant is playing a delicate game. He’s describing, often quite gleefully, the sexual successes of this monster. In fact, he never calls Duroy a monster and he never calls him to account. No, let me put that a different way: he never tells us what to think. Mme Marelle has been reinstated by now, and when he takes her home after a dinner party (he’s already taken the editor’s wife home and declared his undying love in that routine way he’s developed) there’s an uncomplicated comedy moment: she’s saying how their bedroom would be nicer as the cab is described as ‘rocking like a ship at sea’. And I couldn’t help reading in the thumbnail biography at the front of the translation I’m reading that Maupassant had ‘a reputation for womanising’. Ok – but I’m not sure how to take those lines about how ‘all’ men feel at that moment when they know they’re in with a chance….

What I’m hoping is that he’s lulling us into a false sense of security – I’m not just talking about the comfortable sexual attitudes he comes out with – and that Duroy is going to get his come-uppance. One little scene in the church where he waits for his future conquest makes me think he needs to watch out. He sees a poor woman desperately praying and feels a kind of patronising sympathy: the lives some people have to lead! Later, when he sees her again, his sympathy is all used up and he ignores her. But some of us haven’t forgotten about Forestier yet – because Maupassant has used this poor woman, and Duroy’s supercilious response to her, to remind us.

20 January
Part 2, Chapter 5
Briefly…. (as if): this feels to me like the pivotal chapter. Any attractiveness there might have been about Duroy – or Bel-Ami as he is now almost universally called – has been worn away. He is cruel, manipulative, entirely indifferent to the feelings and welfare of the people he pretends to love. The triumphs of the previous chapters, culminating in the winning of the editor’s wife (for no reason, apparently, other than to prove his own power) are beginning to seem like what I suspected they might be at the time: the zenith of his achievements. They begin to come apart in this chapter, although he thinks he’s still in control: as he plays off the lover he’s grown tired of – the girlishly infatuated editor’s wife – against Clotilde, the one who’s always genuinely mattered, the important one discovers evidence of the other’s presence. She’s wrapped hairs around his buttons – and one of them is white. If I remember rightly, white hair was one of De Varennes’s markers of mortality during his dark night’s walk home all those chapters back, and, however much Duroy tries to make light of it, there’s a death-knell of something in the air.

Maupassant has set another hare running: as Duroy thinks of ways to get rid of the editor’s wife she desperately offers the only thing she has left: information she’s overheard about – wait for it – a bit of insider dealing he might find profitable. Of course, he has no money, and of course he wouldn’t think of borrowing from the woman he’s about to dump… until she finds a form of words that’s acceptable. Forms of words are important in this universe, and Duroy is very soon working out how the 70,000 francs he’ll make will complete his move into politics. I didn’t mention that, because there’s been so much else going on, but that’s the next step. Duroy, as we can see, is as devious in public life as he is in private, often at the same time.

Five chapters to go. I fully expect that before the end Duroy will be as destitute as the poor woman he saw in the church a chapter or so ago… and that by the very end he’ll be as dead as the dead man whose shoes he’s wearing now. We’ve just had another death: Madeleine’s benefactor – the one I’ve always referred to as the sugar-daddy – has died unexpectedly. So it goes. Whether it will go for Duroy as well depends on whether we’re to get conventional literary justice, or a more cynical-seeming take on how things really work. Maybe he’ll end up as president.

22 January
Chapters 6-10 – to the end
So, president it is. Not yet, maybe, but when you’ve got God on your side what can stop you going all the way? A couple of pages from the end Maupassant has Duroy send up a little prayer to ‘the deity who had shown him such favour’. Send-up is right: at the same moment Maupassant makes it clear Duroy is behaving only ‘almost like a believer.’ And the only divine hand at work in this universe belongs to a 35-year-old syphilitic from Normandy.

Did I always know it would end in a scene like this, in the church of the Madeleine? Obviously not. But five chapters back I did suggest that the longed-for come-uppance might be too conventional. In the world Maupassant is satirizing you don’t get punished just for being evil. Bu..ut… Maupassant definitely doesn’t want us to be sure. He keeps laying traps, like the three death chapters that conclude Part 1. They are as conventional as a medieval Dance of Death woodcut. And we know about some of the other reminders of death during Part 2: the death throes of the day as the newlyweds travel to Rouen, the older mistress’s white hairs, the death of Madeleine’s benefactor. And there’s a scene – following a kind of victory celebration Duroy goes in for after he realizes the will has made him rich – in which he and Madeleine see themselves in a night-time mirror: their reflections look out like ghosts.

We think we know what all these signs mean – because, I guess, that’s what Maupassant wants us to think. Of course, it might be that it’s only a reader brought up on the picturesque deaths a writer like Dickens deals out to his villains who assumes that Duroy will get the same. But I suspect Maupassant knew exactly what he was doing: there’s enough of melodrama in the final couple of chapters – the merciless exposure of the adulterers, the vicious beating of Clotilde – to turn Duroy into exactly the kind of villain we want to hiss off the stage. But, under the diligent protection of a caring author, he’s not going anywhere.

But I’m not telling you about the plot. Basically, the upward trajectory of Duroy’s fortunes continue, with the logarithmic increase in his wealth (francs becoming hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions) matching his growing reputation. At the same time the ethics of his actions plunge in the opposite direction: any vestigial moral code he seemed to retain in the early chapters has gone, replaced by complete indifference to anybody else. But he can still use the old morality when it suits his purposes: he’s good at locating himself in a position on the highest of the high ground. It helps that Maupassant has endowed this writer, so recently a novice, with a highly developed ability to say exactly the right thing in exactly the right voice. Anybody would think he’d sold his soul to the devil – but in this world there seems to be no need for such an inconvenient step.

Nasty set pieces: Duroy’s manoeuvre over the will, allocating himself half the fortune Madeleine has been left; a different kind of manoeuvring, over several chapters, first to lure and then to elope with his ex-lover’s daughter (nubile and with now super-rich parents); the painstakingly pre-planned revelation of his wife’s adultery (which Maupassant describes in all its sordid detail, as though to make us complicit in ‘society’s’ inevitable disgust); and that beating-up of the ever-loyal Clotilde. The last of these is the final red herring: he’s going to be denounced at last, we might think. Nope. She squeezes his hand, at the wedding, to let him know that it’s business as usual. Aargh.

And that’s it. He’s got it all, and everybody looks on with a kind of appalled admiration. Only one person can see him for what he is and, in a way, accept it. She’s the one who, in one possible reading, taught him most of what he knows: Madeleine, the novel’s other survivor. She’s now dictating articles to a different up-and-coming young writer – and if we wanted to we could predict the new man’s future fortunes…. But we don’t, because this is Duroy’s day. As he leaves the church he sees the parliament buildings up the hill ahead – and we already know about the plans he’s got for getting himself a seat. We might not like it but, hey, what can you do about it?

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