Commentary - Sex, power and corruption

Sebastian Shakespeare selects the best satire on journalism ever written

Many regard Evelyn Waugh's Scoop as one of the finest comic satires ever written on newspaper ethics and manners. Bel-Ami, written in 1885 and reissued this month by Oxford World's Classics (OUP, £7.99), deserves a superior place in the canon. It is tempting to speculate whether Waugh had himself been inspired by Guy de Maupassant's masterpiece. Intriguingly, Alec Waugh was one of the book's most vociferous champions. In an introduction to a rare American edition published in 1955, he praised Bel-Ami for its masterful depiction of sex, power and corruption. "It is one of the most readable novels that have ever been written," enthused Evelyn's elder brother. "I have certainly reread it more often than I have any other novel."

Few who are familiar with the work would disagree. Bel-Ami is the story of the young blue-eyed, blond-haired Duroy and his climb up the social and political ladder by means of the women he seduces. At the start of the book, he has just returned to Paris from the army in north Africa. He is twenty-something, jobless and lusting after a glass of beer and the prostitutes at the Folies-Bergere. He meets his old friend Charles Forestier in the street (yes, luck and contacts play their part in this drama). Forestier, the political editor of La Vie Francaise, encourages Duroy to take up a job on the paper, despite his lack of experience and his poor academic qualifications.

By the end of the novel, Duroy is married to the daughter of one of the richest men in Paris, the owner of La Vie Francaise, while being promised a baronetcy and a seat in parliament. What happens in between is a series of seductions: he has an affair with Madame de Marelle; marries the widow of his friend Charles Forestier; two-times her with Madame Walter, the wife of the paper's editor and proprietor; blackmails his wife to get a divorce; and finally elopes with the editor's daughter. It is a chilling portrait of careerism (contemporary critics likened the book to "literary Darwinism") but, above all, it is an exuberant indictment of journalism. Forestier owes his superior position to his wife, who writes his articles for him at home. Duroy, who has never written anything before, masters the trade by sleeping his way to the top.

This is an Alice in Wonderland world where skill at "cupball" in the office confers more prestige than skill at journalism; and when the editor is said to be "in a meeting", he is usually playing cards. Language is not a reflection of reality, but a substitute for it. Hired as Forestier's fact-checker, Duroy is asked to write a series of articles on Algeria, where he served in the army. He calls on Madame Forestier for assistance, and she dictates to him an article about north Africa, despite never having been there herself. She imagines strange encounters, remarkable conversations with fellow travellers, and fictional love affairs with the local women. It is what would now be termed a "colour piece".

Duroy's first reporting job is to interview a Chinese general. His mentor, Saint-Potin, it transpires, has interviewed hundreds of Chinese generals before. He sends Duroy home, explaining that there is no need to meet the gentleman concerned. All that is required is to recycle the previous article and just replace the name of the interviewee.

Maupassant touches on the ephemeral joys of the trade as well as the pomposity and conceit (Duroy splits his byline into two - Du Roy - because he thinks it sounds grander, and on his watch, he has engraved a monogram under a baronial coronet).

His characters are archetypal. There's the roguish, Robert Maxwellish proprietor who uses his paper to further his political and business interests; a celebrity byline who is hired to give the paper a literary, Parisian flavour; reporters who are hired on the cheap because "they are prepared to write on anything for money"; and two female style journalists who turn out to be superannuated aristocrats. "The wreckage of the aristocracy is always picked up by the nouveau-riche middle classes," observes one character acidly. I'm sure Lady Victoria Hervey would agree.

When jaded journalists are not fiddling their expense accounts they are challenging each other to duels over petty slights. In 1885, Maupassant was forced to publish an open letter to his critics who had accused him of slander. He wrote for at least three Parisian newspapers and was more than familiar with the backstage drama of the world of journalism. Or, as Alec Waugh put it, "the jockeyings for power, the corruption that edged high office, and the manipulations of the stock market". This book is as piquant as any contemporary satire. Don't take my word for it. Read it yourself.

Sebastian Shakespeare is the editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures