Guy de Maupassant - Bel-Ami
Georges Duroy is working as a railway clerk, earning a miserable 1,500 francs a year and 'not a sou more'. While debating between having two lunch meals before going hungry, or two dinner meals, he runs into an old friend, Forestier, who has gone from thin to healthy, poor to wealthy, and inquires as to how this could be. Forestier explains that any man can have any job, but he must have the drive and be 'pushing' enough about it:
'If someone mentioned the name of Cicero or Tiberius, would you know what they're talking about, roughly?
Good, that's all anybody knows, except for a couple of dozen silly idiots who are quite incapable of doing anything about it. It's not difficult to appear bright. ...All men are stupid oafs and ignorant nincompoops.'
Forestier invites him along to a social gathering, urging him to be as witty and charming as possible. He notes that the young Duroy has a handsome way with the ladies, and encourages him to play on that advantage as much as possible. At first, the night is not a success, with Duroy merely drinking wine and becoming drunk, the conversation flitting from topic to topic, idea to idea, and he is left behind, unsure. But then the words turn to Algiers, a topic he is familiar with, and he begins to speak. Forestier pounces upon this, declaring that Duroy is writing an essay, and a rich older man, editor of La Vie francaise, a newspaper, commissions an article. Duroy's career in high society is born and his confidence grows, he flirts with women and dazzles older ladies with his charisma and good looks.
Duroy very, very quickly learns that the world he has entered is not as easy as all that. His first article is published, but the sequel is rejected day after day. His friend, Carpentier, wants little to do with him if all he is going to do is stammer and fail. People are curt and cold unless he excels, so excel he must. Slowly, he learns the tricks of the trade, all of the sordid little details of being a reporter. At first horrified to learn that most of the stories are made up, or embellished, or riddled with hidden advertisements, he soon puts aside that qualm, joining the ranks with an emphatic glee.
He tumbles into a romantic liaison with a married woman which, beginning well, soon sours. He finds himself spending far too much money, borrowing from friends and other newspaper staff, and lying and cheating. When his affair ends, instead of learning from this mistake and starting afresh, he plots ways to cuckold his boss' wife, twirling his moustache with satisfaction at this idea. This eventually succeeds, but it takes Carpentier's death to make it so. With his new marriage underway, Duroy - now styled Du Roy de Cantel - find himself over his head, his wife's ambition towards his career and ambivalence towards their amorous relations being something he is unprepared for. But, he succeeds in virtually all the areas he has defined as being of worth: His career, his marriage, his social liaisons. Within a very short space of time, Duroy has become a socialite of Paris.
Maupassant's writing is, for the most part, smooth and affective, although the actual word usage does not often venture into flowery passages or philosophical musings, but when it does, it is certainly worthy. An older character, walking home with Duroy one night, muses on death and time, on his life, on what it means to be alive and what it means once you are dead. While these diversions obviously cannot hold up to a full philosophical treatise, they are not supposed to, and are handled with enough grace and skill as to be thought provoking, honest, and valid. Similarly, when exercising his authorly muscles, Maupassant can write a might fine sentence. An examples of this is when describing a great fleet of ships: 'They were enormous, strange, deformed objects with excrescences and towers and rams plunging into the water as if trying to take root in the sea.' Or there is this particularly contemptuous account of an older woman's desire for him: 'Since she had hitherto been a completely honest woman, a virgin at heart, and as impervious to feeling as she was ignorant of sensuality, this prim woman, whose staid forties were like a wan autumn after a cold summer, had all at once been thrust into a sort of faded spring, full of tiny, sickly flowers and frost-bitten buds, a strange blossoming of adolescent love, a late-flowering love both passionate and naive, full of unexpected raptures, girlish squeals, embarrassing billing and cooing and outdated airs and graces that had never even been young.'
An interesting and not entirely agreeable decision of Maupassant's is to, very occasionally, slip into the thoughts of a periphery character. While, for almost the entirety of the narration, we are firmly lodged within the mind of Duroy, there are brief occasions, when the young man has done something to provoke a firm emotional reaction in another character, that we are able to spy, however briefly, on their desires, ideas and expectations. The problem with this is that it happens so rarely, every fifty pages or so, that the decision to include such an excursion seems quite odd. Whenever it happens, we are thrust outside the flow of the narrative, rejected from the world and mind of Duroy, to inhabit the alien considerations of a character who, by virtue of not being the main in such a character-driven novel, is hardly as interesting. However, these journeys are quite brief, a paragraph or two at most when they occur, and feel like more of a miss-step rather than a full blown mistake on the author's part.
The latter half of the novel sees Duroy becoming bitter at the failure of his success. That is, while he is promoted, inherits money, gains status and wealth, it never seems to be enough for him. He compares his own success to that of much wealthier, older men, and find that he often comes up trumps. This disgruntles him, and he is consumed with jealousy, which has the unfortunate effect of making him a less sympathetic character. But, as he becomes a little older and a little wiser, he mellows, understanding that patience and intelligence will gain him the status of the men he so envies, and that not everything can come to him at once. In a series of brilliant coup's, he manages to place himself in an incredible social position, admired and loved by all - except for the toes he stepped on to get there.
It is quite curious to note that, for such a meteoric rise, there is never a fall. Modern novels seem to require a fall from grace, so that the character can learn from his experiences and be happy with the life they have always had, not so with Bel-Ami. Duroy rises and rises and rises, and with it, he grows as a person and a character. Some rough edges are worn smooth, other insignificant aspects of his personality become jagged and sharp, if only for a moment, before rounding out as well. He becomes an admirable, intelligent, wealthy young Parisian socialite, accepting of his status and considerate to those around him. Once his goals are achieved, he is content, and without malice towards others. And, excepting the few women whose heart's he broke, he does not have any enemies or difficulties as such. No, he is an accomplished young man, successful in his own way, and satisfied with himself. We are allowed to observe his journey from peasant to success, and it is a wonderful, interesting and thought-provoking experience.
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