“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”
- Ernest Hemingway


Guy de Maupassant: Bel-Ami

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 30, 2015
Category: Fiction

The Rocks
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
A WEEK IN PARIS: The last thing that interests my daughter is the family business — she takes pictures. While we were in Paris, she had an assignment from New York Social Diary: to shoot the city from the point-of-view of a 13-year-old American girl. She did, I choked out some text, and now the piece has been published.
WEEKEND CLASSIC: What to feature over the 4th of July weekend? After the intensity of the last few weeks, the answer seemed obvious: something foreign, but something recognizable. That could only be “Bel-Ami,” which evokes Paris of the 19th century so clearly you can see it. At the same time, the main character is wildly ambitious; he could walk right into an American novel. The best reason: this is a book you can’t put down, and over a long weekend, that’s exactly the kind of book you want.

George — the kind of handsome guy from the country who, for lack of a better thing to do, joins the Army — finshes his military service without a prospect in the world. He moves to the big city, because that’s where opportunity lies. But he gets a lousy job and is totally frustrated.

One evening he runs into Charles, an old Army buddy who’s now a newspaper editor. Charles has an idea: George should write up his wartime experiences, Charles will publish them, and then George will have some business and social credibility.

One problem: George can’t write.

No problem: Charles’s wife will help him.

She does. A job follows. And social invitations. And rich lovers. And thus begins George’s rise to the top.

We’ve read this story before, haven’t we? More often than not, the main character is a woman; her beauty is her calling card, and then her wit and charm do the rest. A man who uses women is a nice twist on an old story.

Indeed, it’s the story of "Bel-Ami," the novel that was Guy de Maupassant’s masterpiece. Publication date: 1885. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

If you think of de Maupassant at all, it’s as a short-story writer. Somewhere in your education, you read The Necklace and thought de Maupassant was something like O.Henry. Fair enough — de Maupassant did write some 300 short stories, and many of them end with a wry twist. [To buy "The Necklace and Other Stories" from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

But de Maupassant was so much more than that.

For one thing, Gustave Flaubert was his mentor; for readers who have savored the flawless storytelling in "Madame Bovary," that says a lot. Through Flaubert, he met Zola, Turgenev and Henry James. And unlike Georges Duroy, the main character of "Bel-Ami," de Maupassant had no difficulty getting published, making money — or finding amusing women.

In the 1870s, de Maupassant contracted syphilis; by the 1880s, as he was writing "Bel-Ami," he knew he was doomed. So he poured everything into the book — from a bitingly realistic philosophy of life to some of the hottest romantic scenes in 19th century fiction. Then he tried to kill himself by cutting his throat. He was put in a mental hospital and died the following year — at age 43.

The glory of "Bel-Ami" (French for "good friend") is the exquisite merger of story, character and style. Though you will probably detest George and his methods — think of a super-slick George Hamilton — the story moves so fast and the writing is so clean and the smut is just so evocative that you hurtle on despite yourself. There’s a dinner party in a Paris restaurant, where good wine and fine food and some ribald suggestions from George enflame the two couples, and then there’s a carriage ride back to the home of George’s married dinner companion…..

But it is not that George is a predator and the women are easy prey. In Paris in the l870s and 1880s, many are married and bored; they know what they’re doing. A few women are virtuous; George ruins them. And then there is Madeleine, the wife of his friend the newspaper editor. She’s smart and cool and modern as Prada. Listen to her:

Marriage, to me, is not a chain but an association. I must be free, entirely unfettered, in all my actions, my coming and my going; I can tolerate neither control, jealousy, nor criticism as to my conduct. I pledge my word, however, never to compromise the name of the man I marry, nor to render him ridiculous in the eyes of the world. But that man must promise to look upon me as an equal, an ally, and not as an inferior, or as an obedient, submissive wife. My ideas, I know, are not like those of other people, but I shall never change them.

She sees through George — or does she? I don’t want to spoil the story, but you’ll think quite a lot about a choice she makes late in the book. And about George’s visit to his parents. And an amazing painting that’s unveiled at a rich man’s party. About mothers and daughters, and this guy’s eagerness to seduce them both. About — but there’s no end to it. "Bel-Ami" is just one of those books that’s hard to put down. The faster he rises, the worse he behaves; you can’t wait to see how George will be punished for his crimes against women.

And then you get to the ending. Suddenly you have to consider the morality of these characters — and your own — all over again. How annoying! But totally worth it, for "Bel-Ami" is a novel you will read again and again, a novel you’ll press on your friends, a novel you’ll be arguing with for years.

Short takes

A nail-biting, true story of a French family in World War II

Heroes tend not to talk about their exploits, so no one told young Charles Kaiser what his French cousins did in World War II. It was a lot: André Boulloche coordinated the Resistance movements in the nine northern regions of France, and when he was captured, his sisters did all they could. The price was high: As the war was ending, their parents and brothers were taken to Germany and killed. Now, a lifetime later, Kaiser excavates their story. More: in a mere 230 pages, he also offers a capsule history of the war, with telling anecdotes that were new to me. Like: Hitler slept through D-Day. The French police weren’t asked to arrest children, but in 1942 they sent 4,051 to Germany, where they were immediately gassed. Bicycles cost as much as cars. Men pedaled to charge generators to keep the lights on. Heat? A memory. “The Cost of Courage” is well named. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

‘Pot Luck’ won’t get you high. It may just improve your health.

Richard Lewis spent two decades in charge of the Absolut advertising account — he invented those classic Absolut ads. He’s taught Branding at Yale and NYU. You may recall his book, Why Hire Jennifer? Now he’s back, with an equally accessible book: “Pot Luck: Why Marijuana is Today’s Medicine.” Huh? His reason: 23 states have legalized medical marijuana, 4 have gone further and legalized recreational marijuana. And there are hundreds of books. His aim: the simplest and most factual. In 200 pages, with big print, many illustrations and contributions from doctors and patients, he pretty much does that. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

A first-time director to watch, an actor’s breakthrough performance

Lou Howe is married to my favorite and only stepdaughter, but if I didn’t know him, I’d still be knocked out by “Gabriel,” the film he wrote and directed. Rory Culkin is devastatingly compelling as a damaged kid so desperate to fix his life that he stalks a long-lost girlfriend. “Gabriel,” a little film that launches two careers, is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. The website lists other cities, streaming opportunities and much more objective praise.

You are falling into a deep, deep sleep

Jason Clement is the first engineer to be inducted into the Sony Samurai Society, the most prestigious honor that a Sony employee can be awarded. When someone of this stature creates an app and “Zen” is in the title, I pay attention. Not that I grasp the tech: “Zen Tunes combines Isochronic tones with monaural and binaural beats.” Translation: Zen Tunes lets you create a custom mix of sounds, set volumes individually, and then store your personalized “mixes.” Result: “brainwave entrainment.” Translation: Your brain eases into a deep state of relaxation or sleep. Who would like this? Insomniacs. Travelers. Dreamers. Aficiondoes of the new and cool. Deep dive here.