XY: Good morning darling, are you awake? I wanted so badly to rouse you from your seemingly endless slumber—you slept so soundly I worried you were dead! But then you looked so beautiful, so sensual even in deepest sleep, that I knew …
XX: For god’s sake, XY! What is the matter? I was having the most punishing dream—there was a woman, a giantess, with the longest whip I’d ever seen …
XY: In that case I’m sorry to have disturbed you, but it absolutely couldn’t be helped. You see I’ve finished Maupassant’s Bel-Ami at last, and it was as fascinating and delightful as you promised.
XX: I knew you’d love it. Go on then, question me—but I warn you, I know this book inside-out.
XY: I have so many questions, XX, but the first is by far the most pressing. Bel-Ami – that is to say Georges Duroy, or ‘Du Roy’ as he rather grandly preferred to call himself – was a classic cad, a bounder, a scoundrel. That is beyond dispute, is it not? By the end he was more than that, even – he was a monster.
XX: Monsters are so often a product of their society—Georges is no different.
XY: I suppose that is the 19th century naturalist novel in a nutshell.
XX: Even so, he would be nothing without the women. Whether he is conscious of it or not, they teach him subtlety, manipulation, canniness, observation. As a man, he’s simply in the social position to take advantage of his knowledge. Georges was a provincial through and through when he arrived in Paris. From the prostitute Rachel, to his on-off mistress Madame Clotilde de Marelle (whom I think he loved as a kindred spirit), to his wife Madeleine, whom he perhaps learned the most from, to even Madame Walter, he is shaped by female hands. I wouldn’t have said Georges was terribly intelligent, but in the end he’s just intelligent enough to know that what these women have taught him will serve him well—bringing him power and money in the world of men.
XY: Precisely! He was an arsehole, that’s plain. And yet … he was charming, was he not? As a man of action? Attractive and magnetic, despite his evident flaws? Even Clotilde goes back to him in the end, with the suggestion that she will continue to be his mistress as she has throughout the book, the one true constant in his life. What did you make of him—this terrible, ambitious, beautiful young man? (There was a shade of Dorian Gray, too, was there not, in the fact that right till the end he remained ‘that handsome young man’?)
XX: The question I find more interesting, XY, is what the women would have made of themselves, given half a chance. It seemed to me that, all things being equal, men would have been powerless against them. Take Madeleine: she was the shadow of so many famous men—she built Forestier just as (for the most part) she built Georges, and just as she was about to do with her lover, the government minister, before they were caught in flagrante delicto. The women in Bel-Ami are only able to observe and act to a certain extent, but given free rein, they would conquer all. I credit Maupassant for seeing the power of women and the helplessness of men. Even Rachel is magnificent in her tearing apart of Georges when he ignores her at the Folies Bergère with Clotilde.
XY: The fierce and lovely Rachel! That was a magnificent scene—Maupassant creates some fantastically strong female characters. Both Rachel and Clotilde could have been picked off the streets of 21st century Paris, don’t you think, quintessentially modern as they are?
XX: I adored that Clotilde was such a sexual adventurer. She’d doubtless had affairs before—that she ‘keeps’ Georges for a while, paying for the flat where they fuck, is too delicious—and she clearly loves the ‘low’ life of prostitutes, dance halls, and drinking houses.
But did you not think, darling, that Georges, in spite of somehow believing he was seducing these women, was ultimately the one being seduced? There is no doubt in my mind that Rachel, Clotilde and Madeleine pick him out as something special to suit their purposes. As a matter of fact, I think that when he elopes with Suzanne, the Walters’ young daughter, it is the first time he’s actually the seducer! Even with serious little Laurine, Clotilde’s daughter (who gives him his nickname), he loses power over her once she finds out he is engaged to Madeleine; his usefulness is over.
XY: You have a point, XX—Rachel, Clotilde, and Madeleine all wore the trousers, so to speak, at least initially. But I saw it as a trajectory: he learned from these women, as you point out, and eventually learned from them how to manipulate and seduce his future lovers. There is a moment late in the book when he has several women of all ages on the go at once, and it is at that moment that he comes into his own as a fully-fledged Casanova. That is also the point that he becomes a sort of monster, intoxicated by his own success, believing he can take whatever and whomever he pleases.
XX: I will admit at that point I wanted to see his spectacular downfall—but at the same time I wanted to see just how far his terrible audacity would take him!
XY: One thing we have neglected to discuss is the gorgeous Belle Époque scenery: the drinking, the dinners, the costumes, the nightclubs, the soirées, the intrigues. This is Paris at its peak, and the place, the whole book, in fact, smells of sex—does it not, XX? Or perhaps it was just my copy …
XX: Oh—when Georges, Clotilde, and the Forestiers go out to dinner in the private room … it’s one of my favourite scenes.
XY: I knew you’d love the private room, XX.
XX: It’s so marvellous and so true, though, isn’t it? You start full of decorum, politely chatting, sipping your wine, nibbling your food—and then as more alcohol is consumed everyone starts revealing their desires: ‘We want some ice-cold champagne, the best you’ve got, sweet champagne I mean, nothing else’. As they become more drunk, they eat more frenziedly, between mouthfuls and glasses becoming greedier for everything, including sexual conversation.
XY: Yes! There are Ostend oysters, ‘melting between the tongue and the palate’; ‘a trout as pink-fleshed as a young girl’—and the conversation moves from ‘noble theories of courtly love’ to ‘elegant smut’, as words begin to have physical effects, ‘like a hand lifting up a skirt’; words become ‘as sensual and disturbing as a sexual embrace’.
XX: And other scenes too: Clotilde sitting in the working-man’s restaurant, aroused and sipping her cherries-in-brandies, or devouring the marrons glacés that Georges buys her before a tryst; the description of the fitted blue cashmere dress with the frothy white lace that Madeleine is wearing the first time Georges meets her, or the loosely wrapped dressing gown she wears the morning he comes to her for help with writing the article—her standing at the fire, half-dressed and smoking a cigarette, unfazed by his presence. Even the rather seedy love nest Clotilde pays for—the bed with its ‘massive red silk eiderdown covered with dubious stains’—Maupassant’s rich details are written to seduce the reader.
XY: But at the same time—and this is just as essential—there is in everything the hint of death, the memento mori, the rush to indulge in pleasure before it’s too late.
XX: Oh yes—didn’t you think that affected him more after seeing Forestier die, and then he and Madeleine go to visit his parents? Not just death, but also trying to escape the poverty he came from—really, to bury it completely. And I suppose there is a third angle: the arrogance of a man who thinks he can live better than the people he envied—because he did envy Forestier and the Comte de Vaudrec, who leaves Madeleine all his money. Their deaths spur him on to gather more power and wealth.
What did you make of old Vaudrec? Naturally Georges thinks his wife must have had an affair with him, for him to do something so unheard of, but really, I think she was his illegitimate daughter. Even though she doesn’t say it, her musings on the unknown aristocrat who made her mother pregnant and the mysterious benefactor who paid for her schooling sort of point to him.
XY: It hadn’t occurred to me! I’d assumed he was a sort of chaste older lover—but you’re absolutely right, it makes perfect sense.
XX: When Georges emotionally blackmails Madeleine into signing half of the inheritance over to him, I think she sees for the first time that he isn’t just another Forestier, and that he’s no longer looking for a partner to help him rise. And when he sets up the police raid to catch her in bed with her lover so that he can divorce her, her reaction is superb—cool and calm, even lighting up a cigarette even though she’s almost naked. Oh, and it’s another example of Maupassant’s eye for lustful detail: the signs of their pre-fucking feast in the background, with oyster shells, remains of a roast chicken, and empty bottles of champagne strewn across the floor.
XY: There is so much we haven’t talked about, darling—the duel, the old poet Norbert de Varenne, the day-to-day business of journalism—but we should leave something for the reader to discover, or rediscover. Let us move the conversation on to more pressing matters, what do you think?
XX: A gentle reminder, XY, that Clotilde and I have few things in common—if you bring me a bag of marrons glacés, I promise to do terrible things to you …