Wednesday, March 03, 2010

book review - Bel-Ami - Guy De Maupassant

"Envy, bitter envy, was permeating his soul drop by drop, like a poison that tainted all his pleasures and made his life hateful."

"She had expected him to be overjoyed, and was annoyed by this coolness. 'You really are incredible. Nothing satisfies you now.'"

There are moments with this book when you are trying very hard to like the main character Duroy. As a journalist you want him to fall in love with the written word and understand the power and attraction of informing others and being a man in the know.

Unfortunately all that seems to motivate Duroy is money. The power is a secondary thing that is gained as a result of the quest for more money. Nothing is ever enough and the son of peasant tavern owners in Normandy all too quickly forgets his past. His lucky break is also quickly forgotten and a growing sense of deserving money and influence starts to grow in his heart.

Duroy is almost blind to the pain and hurt he causes others starting with his mistresses and then moving on to his wife. He marries well above his position and manages to enter into a social world that was completely beyond him when he was a clerk for the Northern railway company.

But as his heart hardens and he sets his sights on greater prizes the reader also starts to lose support for 'Bel-Ami' the handsome man who is able to conquer hearts.

But there are moments of dislike here reserved for journalism as a whole rather than just the general power hungry social climber as the exchange between Duroy and the journalist Saint-Potin show after they have been sent to interview prominent Indian and Chinese officials.

"Saint-Potin began to laugh: 'You're still very naive, aren't you! Do you really believe that I'm going to ask that Chinaman and that Indian what they think of England? As if I didn't know better than they do what they're supposed to think for the readers of La Vie francaise! I've already interviewed hundreds of those Chines, persians, Hindus, Chileans, Japanese and suchlike. As far as I'm concerned they all tell me the same thing. I simply have to take the article I wrote most recently and copy it word for word. What does change, naturally, is their appearance, their names, their titles, their age, their staff.'"

But once his feet are under the table Duroy manages to navigate a path to becoming not only wealthy but in terms of relationships spoilt for choice of mistresses. But he fails to see love in any real shape, even from his parents, and instead keeps moving forward with those pound eyes in those eyes.

He fears failure like others fear death and that spurs him on to set his sights on power and money and to gain it in such a ruthless manner.

"A confused, immense, crushing terror was weighing upon Duroy's soul, the terror of those infinite, inevitable nothingness, endlessly destroying each fleeting, miserable life. Already, he was bowing his head before its threat."

The fact that you are not only inducted into the world of Duroy and can grasp the issues of the day as France argues with itself over its imperial ambitions is because of the way De Maupassant builds up the picture. It starts slowly as Duroy takes his first tentative steps into society but by the end as the issues become more complex the reader is able to navigate round this world of newspaper, foreign ministers and mistresses and still come to the conclusion that Duroy is dangerous.

Just as in Pierre et Jean what you admire here, along with the plot, is the way that De Maupassant is able to serve up such wonderful characters. Just as with the other book the bare bones of the story are reasonably simple enough the magic comes when he describes how certain characters react to those circumstances.

Politicis and journalism might have changed but what keeps Bel-Ami timeless is the master class in describing human behavior and then motivation of those captivated and driven by wealth and power.

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