Monday, May 25, 2020

Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant (1850 -1893) is a writer that I had vaguely heard about over the years but as to what he wrote I could not have told you. Then two years ago my blogging friend Ruthiella (please check out her excellent website reviewed his novel Bel Ami for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge and gave it high praise.  Now having also read the book I heartily agree.  This is a remarkable novel well deserving its status as a classic.

And so when Bel Ami begins we are introduced to George Duroy, a handsome young man who arrives in Paris around 1880 determined to rise high in Parisian society.  For George his good looks have always been his fortune and so though he arrives with very little money he knows that won't be the case for long.

After a few months in Paris, George runs into an old army buddy, Charles Forestier, who he served with when he was stationed in Algeria.  Charles is now an editor at La Vie francaise and he helps George get a job at the paper.  George has trouble writing his first article but that's no problem.  Charles tells George to go see his wife Madeleine Forestier who will write the article for him.  The Forestiers also invite George to a dinner party at their home and it's there that George meets Clotilde de Marielle.  She is a friend of Madeleine Forestier and Clotilde and George begin an affair.

Clotilde is alot like George, young, beautiful, adventurous with a taste for the seedier side of Paris.  George is very familiar with this part of town and is happy to accompany Clotilde on these outings.  Clotilde is also married but she assures George that this fact is irrelevant as long as one is discreet.  George has a good time with Clotilde.  She provides him with money, pays for their secret apartment and the restaurant bills etc.

George meanwhile begins to make his way at the newspaper and becomes rather good at his job but his position has no future.  He begins thinking about Madeleine Forestier.  She is beautiful, smart and has the drive and connections that can help a young man like George go far.  He professes his love to Madeleine but she is not interested. And in a cold way explains:

"My dear friend, for me, a man who's in love is erased from the roll of the living.  He becomes a half-wit, and not just a half-wit, but a dangerous one.  With men who are really in love with me, or who claim they are, I break off any close relationship, first because they bore me, but also because I don't trust them, just as I don't trust a rabid dog who might go on the rampage.  So I put them into moral quarantine until their sickness is over.  Don't ever forget this". 

It's quite a declaration and of course Madeleine sees through George quite clearly knowing he cannot love anyone but himself.  Still, when her husband dies, George is a help to Madeleine during Charles' final hours.  She decides to marry George with no illusions.  It's a partnership, a way for Madeleine to advise George so that as a couple they can rise high in French society.  George for his part has not given up his relationship with Clotilde and has also begun a new affair with the wealthy publisher's wife, Mme Walter.  As to how George's juggling act involving three society women and a fourth on the way resolves itself I will leave it to the reader to discover.

Bel Ami presents a very cynical picture of 19th century Parisian society and more generally a pessimistic view of life and love in general.  Some may ask therefore why read Bel Ami?  Well, for me two reasons.  First Guy de Maupassant is a masterful writer, very detail oriented in terms of describing what Paris in the late 19th century must have been like.  But also I noticed that the subject of death takes up a powerful place in this novel.  Charles Forestier for example is dying of tuberculosis which when he first meets George he dismisses as bronchitis but his increasingly terrible coughing alerts the reader.  Charles tries to remain in denial but everyone around him is not.  And then there is the elderly poet, Norbert de Varenne who walking home with George one evening tries to warn the young man about the kind of life he's living:

"Life is a hill.  While you're climbing up, you look towards the summit, and you're happy; but when you reach the summit, suddenly you can see the slope down, and the bottom, which is death.  It's slow going up, but coming down is quick.  At your age you're happy.  You hope for so many things, which moreover never happen ... get married my friend, you don't know what it means to live alone at my age".  

The author, Guy de Maupassant died at age 42 in an asylum.  He found out he had syphillis in his twenties and back then there were no good treatments.  When he published Bel Ami he was 35 and one can't help seeing parellels between George and the author who was also quite the ladies man, a cautionary tale perhaps? And what I am discovering the more 19th century literature I read is how many classic authors never reached 50 years of age but fortunately they live on through their great writing.

Bel Ami fulfills my 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic in translation.  The translator being Margaret Mauldon.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

For the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge (choose a 19th century classic) I decided to go with Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.  I wanted to read this novel because Jane Austen is always worth reading but also in Northanger Abbey, Austen pokes gentle fun at the world of gothic novels and since I would be hard pressed to name a writer less inclined to the gothic than Jane Austen I wanted to hear what she had to say on the subject.

And so when Northanger Abbey begins we are introduced to seventeen year old Catherine Morland.  Catherine is a good-hearted young woman who comes from a large and loving family.  She has led a sheltered life in the village of Fullerton and so when her neighbors, the Allens, suggest that Catherine accompany them on a six week visit to the city of Bath she jumps at the chance.

When Catherine arrives in Bath she is thrilled by everything she sees around her, the dances, the shops, the theater and shortly after her arrival she meets Isabella Thorpe and her brother John Thorpe.  The Thorpe's, unlike Catherine's family, are not wealthy but they have expensive tastes and so before long Isabella sets her sights on Catherine's brother James and John Thorpe tries to put the moves on young Catherine but she isn't interested.  Catherine falls instead for a young clergyman, Henry Tilney and the reader can see why.  Unlike John Thorpe who one critic has described as a blowhard, Henry Tilney, is intelligent, a good conversationalist and a gentleman.

Henry's family is also extremely wealthy, owners of the gothic style estate Northanger Abbey.  Henry and his sister Eleanor invite Catherine to spend a few weeks there and before long all of Catherine's gothic novel reading let's her imagination run wild.  She comes up with the idea that Henry and Eleanor's mother did not die from an illness years ago but rather that her husband, General Tilney, unbeknowst to his children has the poor woman locked away somewhere on the estate (shades of Jane Eyre).

Of course it isn't true and Catherine is horribly embarrassed when Henry figures out what she was thinking.  Henry doesn't hold it against Catherine.  More importantly he doesn't tell his father what Catherine was imagining..  As for Catherine she begins to have second thoughts about where her love for gothic novels has led her:

"Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented ... But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age.  Murders were not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb from every druggist". 

Although the above passage conveys Catherine's thoughts I sense she is also speaking for the author as well.  As Austen would later write to her niece Anna who was an aspiring writer "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on".  Austen knew her world of Bath and it's environs and wrote about it beautifully but having now read three novels by Jane Austen I can't help wishing she would have taken a few more chances.

I enjoyed Northanger Abbey.  It's not her best book though possibly because it was the earliest of her six classic novels to be completed in 1803.  As for how things end with Henry and Catherine I don't think I'm giving away spoilers in an Austen novel when I say that of course it ends in wedding bells.