Maupassant (1850-1893) began life in Normandy but soon realised that a provincial existence was not for him; Paris beckoned. Having secured a job on a Parisian newspaper, he began encountering those who occupied the higher strata in society and seemed to be enjoying the hedonistic high life of the time.
Soon after joining the newspaper, Maupassant began writing short stories, a genre for which he is best known; he went on to write three hundred of them as well as six novels. He was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Flaubert and became firm friends with Zola and others who met as a group of writers in Zola’s home. With such expert guidance he began to realise success; but his passions were to be his downfall. An attractive and athletic man, he devoted much time to sporting exercise during the day and to the night-time sport of chasing women, which resulted in him being diagnosed with syphilis. This came as a severe shock to him and appears to have focused his mind on the downside of life in permissive high society.
His experience of excess during the Belle Époque, before the 1914 war, when Parisian society seemed to have lost its head, provided a rich source of material for his stories of which Bel-Ami is perhaps the clearest example. In many ways it is an autobiographical novel, dealing with the dichotomy between the splendour and pleasures of Parisian life, versus the suffering and even criminal behaviour of its pleasure-seekers. Corruption, political and social intrigue, immorality – all these made up the underlying strata of such a superficially gay society. He was not alone in seeing this and Zola’s work also shines a light on the immoral and often pointless lives of the bon-viveurs at that time.
Bel-Ami is written with severe frankness, taking the reader deep into the faux society in which the central character, Georges Duroy, seeks to make his way. Here is a provincial young man who decides overtly to become a social climber. He makes no apologies for it and has no qualms as to who may have to be pushed aside to aid his climb to the top. Such an ascent required him to deal with sleazy and corrupt friends, manipulative mistresses and criminal financiers. Love becomes a means to an end and is totally devalued and hollowed out. His basic character soon becomes corrupt as he takes upon himself the role of seducer and blackmailer.
However, no matter how base life turns out to be, there is, undeniably, a superficial golden glow to the society he is attempting to join. But brief moments of pleasure have to be paid for and he often finds the price increasingly high. Splendour and squalor exist side by side in such a society, they are always indivisible.
This theme is not a unique one of course. One can look back to Greek tragedies which deal with just this dual aspect of life: the immoral and briefly pleasurable, which has to be paid for in some way. The aspect which makes this novel special is that the adventures of Georges Duroy were based on the experiences of the writer and are not, therefore, treated in a moralistic and philosophical way but are presented in all their true gaudiness, their splendour and their squalor. Maupassant’s gift was to present people and their interactions with an almost shocking clarity, something that Flaubert, his tutor is also known for.