How did I not know about this book? Why was I not told? Eh? This is up there with The Wire as “cultural artefacts that everyone will have to engage with when I am chief fascist dictator”.
It’s by Guy de Maupassant, a French writer (mostly of short stories) who died from syphilis in the early 1890s after a short but brilliant and prolific career, writing about French society in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1.
Bel-Ami follows the ever-upward trajectory of Georges Duroy (the name changes in the course of the book). We first meet him basically starving on the streets of Paris. He meets an old army acquaintance who offers him a hand-up – an invitation to dinner, and money to hire the right clothes for such a dinner. There is a wonderful scene, full of insight where Duroy climbs the stairs feeling the clothes ill-fitting and himself to be obviously a fraud. He bumps into an extremely elegant young man, beautifully turned out…. his reflection. And he learns to fake it till you make it (It would have been great if Maupassant had lived long enough to get down with Siggie Freud).
Duroy is a cad, a bounder, an outrageous user of women. He becomes a journalist (somewhere between Scott Templeton meets Sammy Glick) and the novel follows his ascent, alongside and over the bodies of various women (Duroy is as priapic as de Maupassant was).
There is fantastic stuff about corruption, appearances, hypocrisy, love, obsession. The use of a painting of Jesus walking on water becomes a skilfully-used motif.
Really, this is a book to re-read every year. Just amazing.