11 December 2009

Bel-Ami (Guy de Maupassant)

I shall start with a disclaimer: I am not approaching this review from a particularly objective point of view. As stated in an earlier post, I am in my happy place- Bath. Well, near Bath, but for the sake of anonymity I shall not name the tiny hamlet I am currently residing in. Furthermore, I am wrapped in the world's largest, baggiest jumper, drinking a mug of coffee and eyeing in the mirror the image of myself leaning against a walking stick carved like a swan. Needless to say, I am in a serene mood and disinclined to engage in much slating of literary ability at this moment.

That is all slightly redundant considering I am reviewing Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant's novel about a charismatic young veteran soldier who rises to the highest circles of the Parisian bourgeois with the help of several powerful mistresses. The classic has undoubtedly stood the test of time and creates a memorable, if totally unlikeable protagonist in Georges Duroy. I shall get to my main quibble with the text in a moment and instead concentrate on the positives for now.

Although 'a scoundrel' in very sense of the word, the reader cannot help cheering on the meteoric rise of Duroy. He uses the women in his life without a thought for their happiness or sense of self. He tosses one aside for another with little compunction. Duroy happily claims any credit for his successes, although most of the time they come about as a result of the labours of his wife or mistress at the time. However, when a character is so deliciously self-involved it is easy to see there is no malicious intent behind his actions. Duroy acts only for himself and the toe-stepping that occurs is merely a consequence of these actions rather than a driving motive.

Because I came away from the text with a slight feeling of derision for all the women Duroy uses I suspect the text was subliminally rather misogynistic. Considering the time in which it was written I am not surprised or even annoyed about this. Nor am I much riled by the depiction of Duroy's peasant parents. They are described in a scornful tone and their surroundings are much ridiculed which can only be attributed to Maupassant's ignorance due to his aristocratic upbringing.

No, my main issue is that the book is quite obviously poorly translated. There is no way the story of Georges Duroy would have lasted as an enduring classic if the original French version were written in the basic manner in which the English version stumbles along. After doing some research on Douglas Parmée I find that he is a well-respected translator of French literature. I, however, remain underwhelmed by his abilities. I finished the novel and enjoyed it on the strength of the plot and characters but felt I was perhaps only being shown the basics of what is a much richer story in the original language.

Still, absorbing and insightful, Bel-Ami is worth a read and, if you speak French, most probably a MUST READ.

Rating: 7/10.
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