Bel-Ami has been a favorite of mine for some time, and I picked it up again recently because I’d heard about the film version starring Robert Pattinson. Be still, my heart! I’m not sure Pattinson is a fabulous actor but all he has to do in Bel-Ami is seduce. And we know he’s capable of that. I’m happy to report, though, that while I mentally put Pattinson in the place of Georges Du Roy every now and then, Maupassant’s fiction took over my imagination, and I was sucked into this delicious tale of social climbing in Third Republic Paris.
Cynical? Oh, my goodness. The wonder to me, throughout, is that even though Maupassant never conceals Du Roy’s unpleasant character, we still root for him. Why is that? He actually has few attractive qualities, aside from his looks and the uncanny ability to be what every woman wants. Old, young, respectable, virgin, whore, they all fall for Georges. Tellingly, it’s a young girl, the daughter of his first mistress, who christens him “Bel-Ami.” Is that really what women want? A handsome little buddy? The nickname is so reductive but so appropriate that it follows him into the social stratosphere. Georges Duroy, the son of rural peasants, marries up, tinkers with his name (from “Duroy” to “Du Roy” to “Du Roy de Cantel”), grants himself a title and is awarded the Legion of Honor. All on the strength of his sex appeal. Which, by the way, Maupassant signals with our hero’s moustache. It’s blonde, frizzy, and apparently irresistible. Du Roy applies it to women’s hands, necks, etc. with devastating effect. It is a brilliant R-rated literary substitute for X-rated passages. (The novel also includes one of my favorite tropes, the tropical greenhouse as locus for slightly perverse sexual activity.)
And all the time, this is an old story, the saga of the young man from the provinces come to Paris to make his fortune. Bel-Ami is like a slice of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, trimmed down and sped up. Du Roy has the ambition of Eugene de Rastignac, the heartlessness of Vautrin, the literary career of Lucien de Rubempré. As a journalist Du Roy is socially mobile, which gives Maupassant the chance to comment on money, politics, the church, society, fashion… and he thinks pretty poorly of it all. The delicious scene that lingers in my mind is Du Roy’s energetic seduction of a virtuous matron, as she kneels in prayer at the society church of la Sainte-Trinité.
Oh wait, I get it now: Bel-Ami is satiric! This is why we actually want Du Roy to succeed, not in spite of but because of his nasty character. Maupassant thus gets to prove how corrupt 1880s Paris was. And we’re fine with that, because it all happened long ago, and in another country. No such thing as a Bel-Ami in contemporary America, nope, wouldn’t happen here.
Remains to be seen whether Robert Pattinson can pull this off. Last time I checked, there was no scheduled release date for the film but the trailers look, well… seductive.