Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Bel Ami" by Guy de Maupassant

Before we discuss Georges Duroy, I want to explain to you about Elvis. You've heard of him, right? Elvis and I have started an online book club, and this is the second book we've read.

I hope you're not too disappointed to hear that the Elvis you're probably thinking of is not the one I'm talking about. For starters, there's no question that my Elvis is still alive. Second, I don't think anyone has ever painted his portrait on a canvas of black velvet. Third, I have a feeling the other Elvis was too busy TCB to do much reading. But my Elvis loves to read (maybe even more than I do? Nah, not possible) and we'll be reading a book together every month until we get bored of each other. I'm not allowed to reveal his secret identity (I think he's embarrassed to be seen with me) but all you need to know is that he is The King.

Now on to Georges Duroy. I've been wanting to read something by Guy de Maupassant for years. I was first introduced to this author during my old book club when one of our members suggested, "We could even read something by Guy de Maupassant. IF YOU WANT." The way he said it made Maupassant's work sound unusual, risky, maybe even naughty. So of course my interest was piqued.

We never did get around to reading Maupassant in book club, but when I heard a new movie adaptation of his novel Bel Ami (first published in 1885) was being filmed, my decision was made. It may have been an odd choice to start with one of Maupassant's novels--and not even his greatest one, a distinction wikipedia states is claimed by Pierre et Jean--as the author is considered one of the "fathers of the modern short story." But I had to begin somewhere, and starting with a seductive Parisian social climber of the late nineteenth century seemed as good a place as any.

Bel Ami is the nickname of Georges Duroy, a handsome and ambitious young man of humble beginnings who finds his surest route to success is through the beds of a series of ever more prestigious mistresses. Without much effort, the nearly destitute ex-military officer of the book's opening scene rises to an impressive position of wealth, influence, and power by the book's denouement.

Elvis couldn't understand it, but I loved Georges Duroy. How could I appreciate such a despicable character? I don't quite understand it myself, beyond the fact that he must have seduced me while he was seducing the ladies in the book . . . plus, in my imagination he doesn't look anything like the portrait on the cover, but instead looks just like Robert Pattinson. (And now you know my dirty little secret.)

It was interesting to learn from the book's introduction that the title character was modeled after the author. Maupassant must have been successful with the ladies, not to mention quite the "cold, vain, selfish, single-minded" person (description courtesy of Elvis. I should have just gotten him to write this post). However, there couldn't have been much of a happy ending for Maupassant, with his world crumbling around his syphilitic ears. This is most evident in the depressing epitaph he wrote for himself: "I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing." I have to say I would hope my life embodies the exact opposite of that sentiment. But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at so cheerless an outlook from someone who tried to slit his own throat.

Bel Ami was very well-written and, though I can't quite explain this since the story wasn't especially suspenseful, it was a page-turner for me. Every time I came to the end of a chapter I just wanted to keep going. Duroy kind of made me think of Scarlett O'Hara; I just had to see what kind of shenanigans he would be up to next.

Elvis called this book "clear, light, and funny," and found all of the characters very realistic.I had to wonder, as I have occasionally in the past, if such a light and clearly-written book was considered fluff in its day (sort of like the nineteenth century's answer to James Patterson or Danielle Steele). However, I think the fact that people are still reading this book more than a century later--and finding they can still relate to it--places it well above fluff.

I do need to rant about the free Kindle version of this book. In case you haven't noticed, many of the free Kindle ebooks originally written in another language are inferior translations. I'm fairly certain that the free Kindle version of Bel Ami is abridged, although I didn't see anything on the amazon website that made this clear. Once I realized this, I sprung for the Penguin ebook edition, though even that had a surprising number of odd mistakes. Penguin has always stood for quality in my mind (though I was a bit disappointed in them recently . . . Elvis knows why) but evidently that doesn't extend to their ebooks. There were several instances where what should have been a "th" was replaced with the letter "m." Just mink how confusing mat was. But it wasn't significant enough to detract from my pleasure in reading the story.

After reading Bel Ami,  I am interested in checking out some of Maupassant's many short stories. I wonder why I don't hear much about him from my fellow book bloggers? Such an elegantly written and classic story should be read more often. Have you read anything by Guy de Maupassant?


Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've not read this, but will be interested to pick this up.

But, I must know...Elvis, reveal your identity!!

Kristi said...

Based on your review, I'll have to read this one. It sounds really interesting. I love your "dirty little secret" about Robert Pattinson. Too funny! He's not a bad one to picture while reading a book. I don't think the fellow on the cover could seduce anyone. I'm not sure when the movie comes out but I'm guessing you'll want to see it.

Amanda said...

Definitely sounds like an interesting book. Maybe Robert will play the him in the movie and slap back on the Dali mustache!
Sorry Elvis didn't enjoy your first pick, what's next up for you guys?

Kathy said...

Sorry, Natalie . . . I can't tell, and Elvis won't! ;) I know how you must feel, though. The curiosity would be killing me. I guess I didn't really think about how it might drive people crazy to not know. Does it help if I tell you Elvis is just a friend who didn't want his real name in my blog? :)

Kristi--It's definitely a fun read and I'll look forward to hearing what you think of it. I especially want to know your opinion of Georges! :) And yes, I do plan to see the movie. Although . . . I have a sneaking suspicion that I enjoy Robert Pattinson more in photographs than in movies. We'll see.

Mandy--nooooo, not the Dali mustache!! Georges Duroy does wear a mustache but I have high hopes that it won't be a ridiculous one in the movie. And--Elvis did enjoy this book! I'm trying to figure out what I said that made you think he didn't. Anyway, in December we'll be reading a book called "The Tooth Fairy" by Graham Joyce. I think it's YA.

Trisha said...

I've read essays by de Maupassant before and enjoyed them, so that combined with this review = yet another book for the wish list. :)

Kathy said...

Can't wait to hear what you think of it! Sorry to add to the TBR madness. ;)

Rebecca Reid said...

i love love love Maupassant's short stories! You're right, few in the blogosphere read him, but they should! Here's to a revival.

I read Maupassnt when I first started blogging and wrote two HUGE posts on my favorite stories by him.
See here and here. I really should revisit him. I was on a short story kick at the time but it's been a while since I've read short stories.

I'm looking forward to reading his novels. Thanks for the reminder.

LifetimeReader said...

I love the tone you take in this post--really respectful of the literature and playful at the same time. And Bel-Ami has been on my TBR pile for months and months now. You're pushing it higher up!

Kathy said...

Rebecca--thanks for the links! I enjoyed reading your posts. I also read the one about how stinky the book was. :) Too bad it wasn't in better shape!

Lifetime--I appreciate the compliment! I'm not very good at being serious. I guess it kind of shows. ;) I do think you will enjoy this book once it rises to the top of your TBR pile!

Amanda said...

I guess it was Duroy that Elvis really didn't like, but also "clear, light and funny" you liken to fluff, so I just thought he didn't really care for it. My mistake.

Kathy said...

I can let it slide. This time. ;)