Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

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.

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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

I feel that I should begin any review of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by indicating that there is very little inside regarding the actual life of Tristram Shandy. At least percentage-wise, the vast majority of the book relates to happenings outside of Tristram Shandy’s direct life, though bearing some relationship to it. In fact, Tristram Shandy isn’t even born until a few hundred pages in. There is a bit more about his opinions, but still. Mind you, this isn’t a problem. However, I just thought that should be clear at the start.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Paul Auster, 2nd for Peter Carey, 1st for Percival Everett, 5th for A. L. Kennedy, 9th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for David Lodge, 2nd for Thomas Mallon, 7th for Jonathan Raban, 8th for Louise D. Rubin Jr., and 4th for George Saunders.)

I can at least confirm that Tristram Shandy is the narrator of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Beyond that, things get hazy.

As I mentioned, he starts out the book addressing his birth…something that does not actually occur for several hundred pages. In between that and the beginning is digression after digression, sometimes returning to the main action as a digression from a digression. His Uncle’s penchant for modeling battles, his father’s quirky approach to things based on ancient learning, direct examples of ancient learning, and so on; the digressions run the gamut. The main unifying force in all of this is Sterne’s wit, and he is witty.

Of course, we should not really be surprised. He addresses the digressions (on more than one occasion) himself. Since trying to provide an example of the digression structure would be too lengthy for this review, I’ll give you some of Shandy’s thoughts on his digressions direct:

For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master- stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader,–not for want of penetration in him,—but because ’tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression;—and it is this: That tho’ my digressions are all fair, as you observe,—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great-Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.

I was just going, for example, to have given you the great out-lines of my uncle Toby’s most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came a-cross us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this, you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby’s character went on gently all the time;— not the great contours of it,—that was impossible,—but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touch’d in, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you was before.

By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.

This, Sir, is a very different story from that of the earth’s moving round her axis, in her diurnal rotation, with her progress in her elliptick orbit which brings about the year, and constitutes that variety and vicissitude of seasons we enjoy;— though I own it suggested the thought,—as I believe the greatest of our boasted improvements and discoveries have come from some such trifling hints.

Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine;——they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them;— one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;—–he steps forth like a bridegroom,—bids All hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.

All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in this matter, is truely pitiable: For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock-still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—-then there is an end of his digression.

——This is vile work.—For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going;—and, what’s more, it shall be kept a-going these forty years, if it pleases the fountain of health to bless me so long with life and good spirits.

I realize that the digression I just provided is a long one, but that’s just in keeping with the spirit of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was a bit difficult to read. I admit that. However, I was downright astounded that it was written in the 1760’s. The characters and settings fit and all, but the structure is like nothing else I’ve seen from that time. I wouldn’t bat much of an eye at this and might even expect it modernly, but I’m floored that Sterne attempted this back then…even more that he got away with it.

I didn’t find The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to be the most enjoyable read, but it’s a landmark in terms of the development of the novel. It’s certainly well worth the look for anyone willing to sit through it all.