If you haven’t read a classic French novel for a while, Maupassant’s Bel-Ami is highly recommended. It follows the high flying career of Georges Duroy, a man of humble peasant origins who rises to become a leading editor and aspiring politician through his cunning intelligence and roving penis. Maupassant wrote this novel when he was dying of syphilis in his forties after his own rise to fame and masterfully represents Duroy’s sleazy deceit and hypocrisy. Duroy is comparable in trickery and manipulation to Shakespeare’s Machiavellian characters Iago and Edmund, and is sometimes, as likable. After he marries, Duroy learns from his mistress that his boss’s wife secretly admires him so he plots to seduce her, and later, after he has his fill of her sexual & political usefulness, he absconds with her rich virginal daughter to consolidate his power.
The seedy context in which the novel is narrated, may in part, excuse Duroy for his unscrupulous behaviour. France’s Third Republic is depicted as corrupt, both politically and financially. We see insider trading, the cozy relationship between government and big business and the declining influence of the church and the aristocracy. Duroy is clearly represented as an amoral product of his times.
The novel is written in a clear, naturalistic way and was highly influenced by Zola, and especially Flaubert, who mentored much of Maupassant's early work. Maupassant does not attempt to preach a moral lesson, but rather, attempts to present life for what it is. As a writer he demanded absolute liberty in choosing whatever subject he wanted and to treat it in whatever way he wished. He describes the outer world as accurately as possible with the purpose of expressing an ‘unexplored territory’ to say something new.
Maupassant is probably better known for his short stories but Bel-Ami is easy to read and is satisfying to follow on many levels- whether it be the shrewdness of Duroy’s wicked behaviour, Maupassant's underlying ironic intent or his uplifting universal statements about life or death.
A film version of the novel will be released in August 2011 http://belamifilm.com/ starring Robert Pattinson as Georges Duroy and Uma Thurman as Madeleleine Forestier, his first wife.
Update: 6 November 2015
Guy De Maupassant Pierre And Jean (1888)
This is De Maupassant’s shortest novel (130 pages in the IndyPublish version) and considered by some critics to be his best work. It is focussed on the Roland family which is thrown in turmoil when the younger son Jean receives the entire estate of Leon Marechal, a former friend of the family. The older son Pierre becomes increasingly jealous of his brother’s fortune and his increasing frustration, anger, suspicion and self-contempt are skilfully handled by the author but sometimes border on the melodramatic.
Despite De Maupassant’s penetrating insights into the nature of jealousy and greed, this novel does not come close to the brilliance of Bel-Ami. If you are to read just one 19th Century French novel it should certainly be Bel-Ami.
Find the entire text of Pierre And Jean here on Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3804/3804-h/3804-h.htm