I don’t always pay a huge amount of attention to the subtitles of books. However, in the case of Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant, the subtitle is important. What is the subtitle? The history of a scoundrel.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Tom Wolfe.)
Bel-Ami chronicles the adventures of a young man named Georges Duroy who has come to make his fortune in Paris after serving in the military in Algiers. At first he does poorly, only finding a low paying clerk job. However, he is helped along by an old acquaintance and starts to do better as a journalist.
Immediately, Duroy starts in on the women. In short, he is a success with them. He receives the nickname, Bel-Ami (beautiful friend) from the daughter of one woman he is pursuing. However, it would be better to call him ‘beautiful enemy’ because he isn’t a nice guy about it. He takes a lover, but throws her over when he has a chance to marry his acquaintance’s wife after he dies.
Mind you, that isn’t to say that he doesn’t see his lover again. He does. He and his wife both have lovers, but he is much more of a scoundrel about it. He has no qualms about betraying his lovers and even picks up one, ruining her life, just to see if she loves him. It’s dizzying how many women he pursues at one time and then doesn’t concern himself with a moment later:
“She is really very pretty and fresh looking,” thought he. But Mme. Walter attracted him by the difficulty of the conquest. She took her leave early.
“I will escort you,” said he.
He seemed to make a great effort, then he continued in a subdued voice: “See, how I can control myself–and yet–let me only tell you this–I love you–yes, let me go home with you and kneel before you five minutes to utter those three words and gaze upon your beloved face.”
She suffered him to take her hand and replied in broken accents: “No, I cannot–I do not wish to. Think of what my servants, my daughters, would say–no–no–it is impossible.”
She hesitated, almost distracted. As the coupe stopped at the door, she whispered hastily: “I will be at La Trinite to-morrow, at half past three.”
After alighting, she said to her coachman: “Take M. du Roy home.”
When he returned, his wife asked: “Where have you been?”
He replied in a low voice: “I have been to send an important telegram.”
Mme. de Marelle approached him: “You must take me home, Bel-Ami; you know that I only dine so far from home on that condition.” Turning to Madeleine, she asked: “You are not jealous?”
Mme. du Roy replied slowly: “No, not at all.”
When she was alone with Georges, she said: “Oh, my darling Bel-Ami, I love you more dearly every day.”
The cab rolled on, and Georges’ thoughts were with Mme. Walter.
He even betrays his wife so that he can get rid of her in favor of a more advantageous marriage. Mind you, that’s to the daughter of one of his lovers.
Frankly, Duroy seemed to me to be more a hollow vessel of impulses (mainly striving and greed) than an actual character. Only the supporting characters in the book seem like real people. The idea that a character has to be likeable is absurd, but Duroy barely seems to be a character. When it came down to it, I just didn’t care much about him.
I really can’t see why Bel-Ami made #3 for Tom Wolfe. Balzac’s Cousin Bette only made one spot higher for him and is a much better book. I can think of a handful of Balzac’s novels (such as Lost Illusions, Father Goriot, or A Harlot High and Low) that didn’t make the list for Wolfe and should have above Bel-Ami. Of course, I might have put some of those above Cousin Bette as well.
Bottom line? I guess Tom Wolfe and I just don’t agree on Bel-Ami. It was okay, but I’ve seen Guy de Maupassant do better.