Saturday, August 3, 2013

Maupassant's Bel Ami

In Whit Stillman's film, Metropolitan, one character describes his rival as follows in a funny scene at a Debutante Ball after-party:
"Rick Von Slonecker is tall, rich, good-looking, stupid, dishonest, conceited, a bully, liar, drunk and thief, an egomaniac, and probably psychotic. In short, highly attractive to women."
That description from a 1990's Indie comedy of manners could apply to Georges Duroy, aka Bel Ami, the quintessential unlikeable protagonist of Maupassant's 1885 masterpiece. Granted Duroy is neither alcoholic nor stupid, and he doesn't start out rich. Otherwise, the description suits him to a tee.
After serving a hitch as a junior officer in Algeria, Duroy, the son of peasant innkeepers, tries his luck in Paris. A fortuitous meeting with an old friend launches a career in journalism. Soon, Georges is climbing the social ladder over the bodies of several influential society women, including his friend's wife. Dubbed Bel-Ami by one of his mistresses' daughters, he conquers with a charm reminiscent of the amorous cartoon skunk, Pepé Le Pew. The rags to riches story incorporates a clever sub-plot in which a cadre of unscrupulous politicians and their journalist cronies profit from a colonial power grab in North Africa.

Duroy reminded me of Edith Wharton's predatory social climber, Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country). The fictional adventures of such amoral scoundrels are often more engaging than those of worthy protagonists. That's especially true when a great storyteller such as Maupassant or Wharton tells the tale. I highly recommend "Bel Ami" to anyone interested in the Belle Époque, and especially to those who prefer an acerbic alternative to a sugarcoated Cinderella story like the musical "Gigi."

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