Guy De Maupassant (1850-1893), if Bel-Ami is any indication, must rank as one of the best writers in the history of the western world. Born in Normandy in 1850, Maupassant became a disciple of the French author Flaubert early in life. Guy quit his job with the civil service after publishing his first short story, Boule de Suif in 1880. What followed was a phenomenal flurry of 250 short stories and six novels before his premature death from syphilis in 1893. During his short life, Maupassant helped to form the groupe de Medan, a loosely knit group of naturalist writers headed by Emile Zola. He also worked as a journalist, covering such important events as the French campaigns in Algeria and Tunisia. A hard worker when it came to writing, Maupassant also possessed a zest for life, including a love for the ladies that eventually killed him.
Bel-Ami is hardly an original premise. How many books written through the years discuss the idea of a rural man heading to the city to make it big? That is exactly what happens with this book in the form of main character Georges Duroy. After a five-year stint in the French army, Duroy moves to Paris to make his fortune. Regrettably, Duroy is languishing in a lowly job as a railroad clerk until he meets his old army buddy Forestier. From this point forward, Georges is on the fast track to success. Forestier gets him a job at a scandal rag named La Vie Francaise where Georges rapidly ascends the ranks from lowly reporter to chief editor. Along the way, Duroy engages in all sorts of amorous adventures with women both high and low on the Paris social register. By the time the story ends, Georges is within sight of the highest positions in French society, all accomplished through sheer cunning and social maneuvering.
There are so many themes running through this sordid tale of the decadent Third Republic that it is impossible to adequately describe them all here. The introduction to this Penguin edition, written by translator Douglas Parmee, does a good job of showing how incidents in Maupassants life appear in the character of Georges Duroy. The protagonists rural background, his experience in Frances North African expeditions, his work as a reporter and the subsequent expose of the seediness of journalism, the numerous affairs, the social positioning, and the philosophical musings on death are all expressions of Maupassants personality and activities. I do hope, however, that Maupassant was not as big of a cad as Georges Duroy because this character may be one of the biggest jerks in the history of literature.
Maupassants knowledge of his own impending death weighs heavily in the story. Two sections highlight his musings on mortality: the monologue of the poet Norbert de Varenne and the death of Forestier. For the author, his slow deterioration from a disease made death a daily reality. What seemed to worry De Maupassant the most about death was not punishment from God but the idea of nothingness and being forgotten by the living. Of course, death makes no impression on Georges Duroy, who experiences only a moderate twinge over the passing of Forestier before making a play for that mans wife in order to improve his social position.