Michael de Percy's Reviews > Bel-Ami
In his review of the 2012 movie version of this novel, New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden refers to Georges Duroy as:
...the coldblooded social climber who seduces his way to the top of Gallic society in Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel, Bel Ami, is one of the nastiest pieces of work in French literature.Sure, Holden says this so he can point out how lame Robert Pattinson (of Twilight fame, apparently - I wouldn't know, I can't stand teeny-bopper nonsense. Besides, Georges had a moustache, maybe Pattinson was too young to grown one) plays the part of this cold-blooded social climber. Yet Georges reminds me of almost everyone I work with, and everyone around me, including myself. Or at least how everyone wants to be. For he has a major chip on his shoulder, one borne by being of a peasant family. But Guy de Maupassant is regarded as a "naturalist", in that he tried to depict human nature as it really was, rather than an idealised or "Disney-fied" version that late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century humans have plastered over their collective vision. I got the feeling that Duroy was not as bad as all that. He was parts of me and parts of those around me. His depictions of envy and the "chip on the shoulder" talented peasant boy who was wrenched out of his comfort zone by the army resonates deeply. And those around Duroy remind me of how I see many others. Maybe my empathy for Duroy holds up a crystal-clear mirror to me. Not something to celebrate, but certainly a reflection to reflect upon. And I think that is why this novel is so very good - it really does depict human nature. The good guy doesn't win in the end, the bad guy doesn't win either, but the scheming Duroy, self-made not through hard work but purely through social climbing, and climbing on the social climbers around him - it was like watching real life, but not where one could sit in judgement (as we tend to do), because deep down, we know that we are one of these very characters, too. This is only the second book I have read by Guy de Maupassant, and my earlier discussion of the collection of short stories in A Parisian Affair had me thinking of Hemingway. It is interesting that I am presently half-way through Albert Camus' The Stranger, and the translator's introduction mentions the similarities between Camus' style and Hemingway, and how his "American" translation brings back some of what Gilbert's "English" translation lost. How much have we lost in the translation of Bel Ami? It would seem like not a thing. How would it be possible for this novel to be any better? I am pleased novels like this are few and far between, or I would quickly become tired of reading. And the biggest lesson I have learnt from this novel? Nietzsche's idea of "beyond". Beyond morality. Nietzsche, I think, meant what Guy de Maupassant does: strip away the veneer of morality and tell the story like it is - no embellishing the facts with morals, no pointing out vices and virtues. Only then, it would seem, can we truly reflect upon ourselves, can we truly see ourselves as we are, without the bias of morality. As Nietzsche suggested, many so-called virtues are weaknesses. Not because he was the "Antichrist", but because if we look at ourselves in the mirror of life, we can only see the vices and virtues we choose to see: "Oh, OK, I get it, I eat too much, but at least I am not a liar..." [never mind that we are disgustingly jealous but can't see this while it is in the very act of taking out our own eye]. This is how I interpret Nietzsche's meaning, and Guy de Maupassant, the great naturaliste, makes this clear to me in this wonderful story.
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