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Guy de Maupassant, photographed by Felix Nadar in 1888

(1885), Maupassant’s short novel about Georges Duroy, a former soldier and fledgling journalist on the make in Paris during the years just before the novel’s date of publication, gives us a snapshot of a France indifferent to and accelerating away from its past. The only vestige we are given of the heroism shown by the nation in the early years of the century is a picture of Napoleon I in the Normandy inn kept by Georges’s parents. The emperor is depicted on a horse ludicrously made yellow by the fading of the print. 

France in the 1880s is unmoved by “la gloire”. When M. Walter, the crooked newspaper proprietor who by the end of the novel has made a vast fortune by insider dealing, facilitated by the power of his newspaper to spread disinformation and thus rig the market, comes up with a paltry scheme to establish his position in Parisian society and neutralise the social stigma of his Jewishness, it is said to be (in a piece of indirect free speech which seems to transcribe Walter’s own thoughts) “an idea worthy of a conqueror bent on subjugating Paris, and idea worthy of a Bonaparte”. Such is the dwindled scale of comparison of all the characters in the novel. Even scoundrels and cowards are celebrated. When Georges’s friend Charles Forestier is dying of consumption in Cannes, he points out over the bay the Île Sainte-Marguerite, an island prison from which the disgraced Marshal Achille Bazaine had recently escaped. Only a little over ten years previously Bazaine’s pusillanimous surrender of the army of Lorraine at Metz had precipitated the debacle of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Forestier’s amoral admiration for Bazaine’s fleetness of foot is entirely without a trace of indignation: “He certainly pulled a fast one there!”  Georges fights a duel with a fellow-journalist who has insulted him in print, but he is no Eugene Onegin. Both men emerge from the ordeal entirely unscathed.

This rapidly evolving society is the backdrop for Maupassant’s relation of the unchecked rise of Georges, who quickly arrives at an understanding of the true nature of the world which is emerging around him, and who, by a mixture of natural charm, cunning, shamelessness, and ruthlessness, transforms himself from a penniless ex-soldier to the cynosure of Parisian society.  Maupassant plots Georges’s rise through the changes in his name. Plain Georges Duroy to begin with, he becomes Duroy de Cantel, then du Roy de Cantel, before finally becoming M. le Baron du Roy de Cantel.

Early on in the novel, before Georges's ascent has really acquired momentum, Maupassant describes a small dinner party in a private room at the Café Riche given by Clotilde de Marelle (who will become Georges’s mistress) for Charles Forestier, who has introduced him to journalism, and Madeleine Forestier (whom Georges will marry, briefly, after Charles’s death).  The setting is an invitation to pleasure:

A white tablecloth, so glossy that it might have been varnished, was spread over a square table on which four places were set; the glasses, the silverware, the chafing dish glittered brightly in the light of a dozen candles in two tall candelabra.

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