Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)

A stupendous shit and an incorrigible cad.

Not the first sign of madness, but the protagonist Georges Duroy.

His blatantly ironic nickname, Bel-Ami, typifies the duplicity coursing through this deliciously unsettling book.

His secret to success in four words? Use your wily willy. Five? Erm. Get off to get on.

Well, well, old boy, I hope you realise you really do hit it off with the ladies? You must cultivate that. It could take you far… they’re still the quickest way to succeed.

And boy, does he slather on the ‘charm’. It’s a shame to see it abused so. And the trust that goes with it. Makes you shiver.

But before we look at some gems, let’s put down a marker and reflect on author Laurie Lee’s sense of pure charm (from his excellent 1975 collection of essays, I Can’t Stay Long).

Charm in a man, I suppose, is his ability to capture the complicity of a woman by a single-minded acknowledgement of her uniqueness…

of being totally absorbed, of forgetting that anyone else exists…

it’s what a man says that counts, the bold declarations, the flights of fancy, the uncovering of secret virtues…

[it] strikes deepest when a woman’s imagination is engaged, with herself as the starting point, when she is made part of some divine extravaganza…

a woman is charmed by what she hears...

So. Here’s Bel-Ami. Being cheesy about a lady’s earring.

It’s charming,… but the ear must take some of the credit, too.

Oh, please.

When I love a woman, everything else vanishes apart from her.

Sir Percy Squirm.

And here’s His Oilyness pecking hands.

He kissed them one after the other and then, raising his eyes, he said simply: “Heavens, if only I’d met a woman like you, how happy I would’ve been to marry her!”

Le beurre ne fondrait pas dans sa bouche. (Good, eh?)

But to be honest, they’re all it. Boys and girls, some astute enough to clock it in others.

Feel the venom in this riposte to Bel-Ami from one of his long-time tootsies, Madame de Marelle. Makes your eyes sting.

You’ve behaved like an utter cad ever since we’ve known each other… you go around deceiving and exploiting everyone and everybody [ouch], you take your pleasure when and where you like and money from anyone who’ll give you it and you still want me to treat you like a gentleman.

Yee-haw. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. (Must remember to do the dishes.)

Semi-Autobiographical of Maupassant? Perhaps. The pox boxed him.

Thanks for being here.

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The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

It’s the hokey-cokey. (Behave, hokey-pokey is an ice cream.) And before you go there, Looking for Nookie lacks gravitas.

How apt that it should start with a chase.

“Child hunt tomorrow, Fanny.”

What a boring life I lead. Walked through the market in the rain today.

This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. [aged about eight, I think] My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

Neat nest of nesses. And here’s another, more insidious.

“It is unfair” was a perpetual cry of the Radletts when young. The great advantage of living in a large family is the early lesson of life’s unfairness.

Linda Radlett wants so badly to love and be loved.

It starts with animals. When protagonist Fanny’s mouse Brenda dies, the family tiptoe around Linda.

… enormous tears were pouring… Nobody cried so much or so often as she; anything, but especially anything sad about animals, would set her off, and, once begun, it was a job to stop her.

“Where’s she buried? Linda muttered furiously, looking at her plate. Her mother, who lived in a perpetual state of surprise at having filled so many cradles, tries to change the subject, “Now, Linda darling, if Fanny has finished her tea why don’t you show her your toad?”

“He’s upstairs asleep,” said Linda. But she stopped crying.

Oh boy, only page ten and the charm’s kicking in.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plain, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in an world of superlatives.

I fiercely concur. I mean, here’s a later Linda on her wailing newborn.

“Poor thing'” said Linda indifferently. “It’s really kinder not to look.”

The wails now entered a crescendo, and the whole room was filled with hideous noise.

“Poor soul,” said Linda. “I think it must’ve caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister.”

Which segues sweetly to the lordly lingo of the upper classes (known, don’t you know, to Nancy acolytes as the ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’). Makes it a fun and funny read (as well as a charming, sad, and lovely one).

Did you spot ‘glass’ above? If you’re U, you don’t say mirror. And notepaper‘s a no-no, perfume prohibited, mantlepiece damned. Lunch? No fear. Envelope is frowned upon.

Always wondered why I’m sent round the back.

Oh, and don’t, dulling, ever put your milk in first.

And, and, okay, okay, back to The Chase. If you’re still awake.

Two key passages for you. (Don’t panic: one can’t really egg a spoiler on a book entitled The Pursuit of Love.)

But first a funny. Linda again.

And they say we are an uncontrolled family – even when Fa [dad, to us plebs] has never actually murdered anybody, or do you count that beater?’

So. Key passage number one on Linda’s quest for love.

… Linda had once more been deceived in her emotions… this explorer in the sandy waste had only seen another mirage. The lake was there, the trees were there, the thirsty camels had gone down to have their evening drink; alas, a few steps forward would reveal nothing but dust and desert as before.

Bummer.

Blow your nose over to key passage number two.

Whatever quality it is that can hold indefinitely the love and affection of a man she plainly did not possess, and now she was doomed to the lonely, hunted life of a beautiful but unattached woman.

Double bummer.

Look out, is that rock bottom looming?

Ha. You’ll just have to read it.

I’m off to luncheon.

Thanks for being here.

Buy The Pursuit of Love (free delivery in cardboard)

Have you read the sequel, Love in a Cold Climate? If so, is it as good?

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