|Bel-Ami. Illustration de Ferdinand Bac, gravure sur bois par G. Lemoine for Œuvres complètes illustrés de Guy de Maupassant (1906). Reproduction in Billeskov Jansen - Stangerup - Traustedt: Verdens litteraturhistorie 9|
Originally published as a serial in the Gil Blas magazine.
A satirical Bildungsroman (un roman d'apprentissage, un roman de formation, un roman d'éducation). The novel is told by a neutral narrator. The protagonist, the subject and the central consciousness is the journalist Georges Duroy, a veteran of the French military in Algeria. The action takes place in the recent present in Paris, and there are excursions to Cannes and Rouen / Canteleu.
Bel-Ami is the story of a playboy, arriviste and opportunist - "l'arriviste absolu". In the beginning, Georges is an insecure, poor country lad from Normandy who has interrupted his military service as he has interrupted his studies before. In Paris he discovers he is irresistible to women. The women protagonists include: - Miss Rachel, a dancer at Folies-Bergère - Mrs. Madeleine Forestier, the wife of Charles Forestier, an army buddy of Georges, a journalist - Mrs. Clotilde de Marelle whose husband is seldom at home - Mrs. Virginie Walter, the wife of the owner and editor-in-chief of the Vie Française newspaper - and Miss Suzanne Walter, their daughter. In the finale there is a wedding between Georges and Suzanne. Georges is rising fast to the top of the society. The result of this novel of education is what we in Finland call "a political broiler".
Georges is active and clever, but in the beginning the aspiring journalist cannot write well, and his famous articles are ghost-written by Madeleine Forestier whose approach connoisseurs recognize not only in the writings of Georges but also of Charles Forestier and even in a successor in another newspaper much later. In the beginning Clotilde helps Georges with money, which he later pays back.
Appearances are deceptive. Articles are ghost-written. Marriages are facades behind which affairs take place. The official government policy is a front for a completely different agenda. Thanks to the double play cunning investors can buy property at ridiculous prices, and when tables turn, they become the richest men in the world. The Vie Française newspaper is a formidable tool in the power game. Georges the playboy is at first a pawn in a big game, but he learns the rules of the game and is becoming a key player in his own right.
Sex in this story is both a means to an end and an end in itself. It is not all instrumental. There is true attraction between Georges and Rachel. There is genuine admiration between Madeleine and Georges. There is real tenderness in the affair of Clotilde and Georges. The only mostly instrumental relationship is between Virginie and Georges. The marriage of Georges and Suzanne is based on calculation but not exclusively; they really love one another.
There is cynical dimension in the story, but it would be wrong to call the novel all cynical. It offers a rich perspective into life. It tells about corruption in society, in the government, in financial affairs, in the news media, and in the institution of marriage. The novel is a satire. People get power, wealth, and sex, but do they find happiness? And do we find them admirable or even likeable?
As a contrast to the high society of Paris there is a rustical episode of a visit to the countryside in Normandy, as Madeleine insists in visiting the parents of Georges. But the cultural gap is insurmountable. Georges loves his parents, but his mother and Madeleine cannot stand each other.
The account of the sex drive is a celebration of the life force. The contrast to that is the naturalistic death sequence in Cannes of Charles Forestier who perishes with TB. There is also the warning example to Georges of his colleague at the newspaper, the ageing poet Norbert de Varenne, now bitter and lonely, urging Georges to get married and have children.
The contrast to the profane goings-on is in the episodes with the sacred, the holy. The main rendez-vous between Virginie and Georges takes place in a church where Virginie also gives her confession. A central setpiece is the artwork of the decade, a painting of Jesus walking on the water, bought by the newly rich Walter family. Belatedly they realize that Jesus looks like Georges.
The main power player behind the scenes is Monsieur Walter. There is a touch of anti-semitism in the way in which his Jewish background is emphasized.
"Bel-Ami c'est moi" said Maupassant who named his yachts Bel-Ami and Bel-Ami II. But there is something profoundly paradoxical, incredible and unconvincing in such an identification. Maupassant is no Bel-Ami. Rather, Bel-Ami is something Maupassant might have become. A dark, twisted, satirical and self-mocking double.
Leo Tolstoy wrote about Bel-Ami and Maupassant in general in his Fundamentalist "What Is Art?" period. If we skip his excesses there is something there that is difficult to ignore.
The almost 90 year old Finnish translation is still a page-turner. My French is not good enough for art fiction, but occasionally glancing at the original I had a feeling that the translation is faithful. The original novel is of course in public domain as is the delightful illustrated edition available for instance at the address