Guy de Maupassant: A brilliant and delicate psychologist
There is a category of writers whose brilliant careers were tragically cut short by death. Guy de Maupassant is one of them. Maupassant died at the age of 42 in a mental asylum in Paris, following a second suicide attempt. It is thought that his gradual decent into madness was caused by syphilis, which the writer contracted in the 1870s. Maupassant believed he was infected with the “Neapolitan evil” at the age of 20 by a ravishing “female boating companion”. But it may have been any one of the prostitutes he used to frequent on a regular basis. Today, he is largely remembered for his mellifluent but methodically plotted short stories, which set the precedent for the genre even before his death. But Maupassant has also written several excellent novels, one of which has recently been reissued by Penguin to coincide with a new film adaptation. Bel-Ami is a book of genuine intrigue, which follows the life of a charming but unscrupulous young man, Georges Duroy, and his quest for “greatness and success, fame, wealth and love”. A protégé of Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant was always actively encouraged by his master to pursue a literary career as someone who had been “born to write”. Spurred by Flaubert, the young writer developed a lifelong habit of perpetually making notes and conscientiously observing his surroundings, which later provided invaluable material for his work. Whenever asked about his revenant-like, taciturn, disposition Maupassant would simply say: “I am learning my trade.” And learn he did.
In Bel-Ami, his second novel, Maupassant explores the dynamics of urban society through its relationship with politics and the press, power and sex, subjects integral both to the fates of the book’s characters and its social climate. Written in the 1880s, the book records the social milieu of bourgeois capitalism under La Troisième République, mirroring the reality of its day. Before gaining acclaim and commercial success, Maupassant worked for the Ministry of Public Instruction, which he left after the publication of his first collection of short stories. In the 10-year period before his death, Maupassant produced 300 stories, six novels, three plays, a few travel books and some poetry. But towards the end of his life, his sedulous work ethic was stifled by his illness, as he recorded in a letter from Cannes. “There are whole days on which I feel I am done for,” he wrote, “finished, blind, my brain used up and yet still alive…I have not a single idea that is consecutive to the one before it. I forget words, names of everything and my hallucination and my pains tear me to pieces.” This writer of immense proficiency and finesse suffered greatly before the “darkness” consumed him. But he also managed to leave behind a literary canon of considerable bulk and scope.
Like Duroy, Maupassant was born in a provincial town and sought to make his name in Paris; and like his fictional counterpart, he had a soft-spot for the ladies, who, as Duroy is told by his old comrade Forestier, are “still the quickest way to succeed”. Bel-Ami is a book that deals with both philogyny and misogyny, liberated women and old-fashioned men, with equally as old-fashioned views toward them. Georges Duroy is a soldier who has returned to Paris after two years in Algeria. Broke and down on his luck he inadvertently meets the “smiling, earnest and attentive” Forestier, now the editor of a daily newspaper named La Vie française – the sort that steers its “course through the waters of high finance and low politics”. His friend lends him money, sets him up with a job at the paper and introduces Duroy to a number of influential Parisian dignitaries. Yet despite his sudden turn of luck, Duroy feels lowly and humiliated about being “excluded from high society, having no connections where he would be accepted as an equal and being unable to frequent women on terms of intimacy”. The subject of romantic female companionship is a preoccupation that Duroy contemplates continuously, albeit most often in a superficial way. He is frequently seized by a “passionate longing to find love”, but this longing rests upon the condition that in return he should be loved exclusively by “a woman of refinement and distinction”. This plays into his very male idea –one which is endorsed throughout the book by various male characters – of furthering his social position by associating with women of a certain calibre, and so Duroy begins his quest for just such a female companion.
Although immediately bewitched by the “charmingly demure” Mrs Forestier, Duroy postpones pursuing his friend’s wife and instead goes after the “deliberately provocative” Madam de Marelle, who although also married puts up no resistance. The two rent a love-nest and spend their time making “excursions to the dubious haunts where the great unwashed go to amuse themselves”. The romance, however, soon dwindles, while Duroy’s professional life takes an upturn as Forestier’s ailing health paves the way for a promotion to the ranks of editor. Eventually, Forestier dies and Duroy wastes no time proposing to his friend’s widow. Mrs Forestier agrees upon the stipulation that she remain uninhibited to do as she please – in fact she insists “on being free, completely free to act as I see fit, go where I please, see whom I choose, whatever I wish. I could never accept any authority or jealousy or questioning of my conduct.” A bold proposition, but one Duroy accepts. What follows are several affairs, several more moves up the career ladder, divorce, scandal, another marriage and a realisation on Duroy’s behalf that there will always be another “young, good looking, intelligent” and ambitious schemer to take his place. Although the realisation is passing, Duroy will no doubt get his comeuppance in the end. Or so, at least, one hopes.
Maupassant is a writer who refrains from moralising, neither siding with nor objecting to his characters, but rather taking an altogether neutral stance. But the moral of the story is clear and perhaps best summed up in the following excerpt when talking to Duroy an elderly gentleman says: “Life is a slope. As long as you’re going up you’re looking towards the top and you feel happy; but when you reach it, suddenly you can see the road going downhill and death at the end of it all. It’s slow going up but quick going down,” especially when one is alone. And loneliness is where most of the characters in Bel-Ami are headed. This bears an uncanny similarity to Maupassant’s own abject end, which he met solitarily despite having been famous, loved, popular and revered. Bel-Ami contains several other elements from Maupassant’s life, but more than that it showcases his deep and intuitive understanding of the workings of the human psyche. No wonder then, perhaps, that Friedrich Nietzsche declared him to be a brilliant and delicate psychologist. Maupassant himself once seconded this notion saying that a good writer should aim to show true human nature in his work, the unexceptional and the everyday of people’s lives and their characters, “their feelings and passions… how people love or hate each other, how they fight each other…how they make up” – essentially, how they live. And in this Maupassant succeeds, for there is life reverberating through every page of this sprightly and compelling tale.
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: August 1975
Paperback: 416 pages