I have been to 19th century Paris, but I barely knew it. Because I have read a book with a style, with themes, with a story, that felt so very, very contemporary.
And at the centre of it all is Georges Duroy. He was an ordinary man, a former soldier, who rose from the bottom of society to the very top. An old friend gave him a foot in the door, finding him a position as a journalist, and introducing him to society. And then Duroy, who was both handsome and charming, was able to seduce wealthy women, the bored wives of powerful men, and use their money, their connections, the things they told him to rise further and further up the ladder.
But he was never satisfied. There was always somebody who had a little more than he did, somebody whose position he had to emulate. Or usurp.
He was not a nice man, but he was a fascinating character. At first it was easy to empathise with a man who had served in the army and had subsequently struggled. Easy to be pleased when fortune seemed, finally, to be favouring him. But that changed, as it became clear that he never appreciated what he had, that he was prepared to do almost anything to further his own ends.
He mirrored the society around him. Every man, and every woman, was motivated by the same things. Every one of them would have done exactly the same in his position, and not one of them would have even thought that maybe there was a different way they could live.
That made the story horrifying, fascinating, and more than a little sad.
The story is very much the focus. The style was quite neutral, and very readable. Only the scenes that move the story forward were played out. Dialogue was always to the point. Descriptions were scarce. And there were no characters that didn’t have significant roles to play.
But there was enough variation to keep things interesting. Drama, and a little humour, when the time came for a duel. Upset, and a little self-interest, when there was a death. And an interesting diversity of outlooks and responses among the many mistresses.
All of that could make it the classic for people who don’t like classics. The 19th century novel that isn’t tied to its era. It really was timeless. I suspect that the author realised that, because he did nothing to pinpoint his setting.
The final scene was perfect. Then, as now, it is the ambitious and not necessarily the righteous who prosper. Not an ending, but a fitting conclusion.