August 25, 2011

Illuminations: The Russian Duel’s Greatest Hits


Graffiti artwork of the Pushkin duel from Kharkov, Ukraine.

With the release of The Duel x5, Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

Over the month we’ve covered quite a bit of material from the new HybridBook novellas. More impressive still is the fact that what we’ve covered does not even constitute 1/4 of what can be found in the Illuminations for The Duel x5. When you buy the whole set, as either a HybridBook or an eBook, you get what constitutes five additional books by way of the Illuminations at the back. The idea is to give the curious reader a fascinating glimpse into the history, philosophy and parallels that surround every great piece of literature. Service announcement over, let’s get knee deep in gore. We are still talking about dueling after all.

If the dueling in literature ever had a golden era it was the 19th century, and if a literary tradition could ever claim this most sanguine of acts it would be the Russians who defined the heights of the century.

It begins of course with that seminal Russian, Alexander Pushkin, who forever redefined his nation’s literature. From the Tales of Belkin to The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin’s fiction is riddled with dueling pistols and drawn blades. The great Russian himself died tragically young, at the age of 39, from a wound he received in a duel with his brother-in-law.

The shining pistols are uncased,
The mallet loud the ramrod strikes,
Bullets are down the barrels pressed,
For the first time the hammer clicks.
Lo! Poured in a thin gray cascade,
The powder in the pan is laid,
The sharp flint, screwed securely on,
Is cocked once more. Uneasy grown,
Guillot behind a pollard stood;
Aside the foes their mantles threw,
Zaretski paces thirty-two
Measured with great exactitude.
At each extreme one takes his stand,
A loaded pistol in his hand.

The above is the final climactic scene before the resolution of Pushkin’s most celebrated dueling scene, which hails from his epic poetic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin. Another brilliant young Russian writer lost his life in a duel, this time at the age of 27. This poet, novelist and solider was every bit the duelist that Pushkin was, each having fought several duels before fatally losing one. Mikhail Lermontov‘s most famous dueling sequence comes from his most celebrated novel, A Hero of Our Time, the hero of which is the perhaps one of the clearest examples of the antihero outside of Byron’s poetry. In this climactic scene the protagonist Pechorin has exposed and humiliated his opponent (who had tried to fix the fight) into firing into the ground.

“Doctor, these gentlemen have forgotten, in their hurry, no doubt, to put a bullet in my pistol. I beg you to load it afresh—and properly!”

“Impossible!” cried the captain, “impossible! I loaded both pistols. Perhaps the bullet has rolled out of yours… That is not my fault! And you have no right to load again… No right at all. It is altogether against the rules, I shall not allow it”…

“Very well!” I said to the captain. “If so, then you and I shall fight on the same terms”…

He came to a dead stop.

Grushnitski stood with his head sunk on his breast, embarrassed and gloomy.

“Let them be!” he said at length to the captain, who was going to pull my pistol out of the doctor’s hands. “You know yourself that they are right.”

In vain the captain made various signs to him. Grushnitski would not even look.

Meanwhile the doctor had loaded the pistol and handed it to me. On seeing that, the captain spat and stamped his foot.

“You are a fool, then, my friend,” he said: “a common fool!… You trusted to me before, so you should obey me in everything now… But serve you right! Die like a fly!”…

He turned away, muttering as he went:

“But all the same it is absolutely against the rules.”

“Grushnitski!” I said. “There is still time: recant your slander, and I will forgive you everything. You have not succeeded in making a fool of me; my self-esteem is satisfied. Remember—we were once friends”…

His face flamed, his eyes flashed.

“Fire!” he answered. “I despise myself and I hate you. If you do not kill me I will lie in wait for you some night and cut your throat. There is not room on the earth for both of us”…

I fired.

Such a trick is what defines a well-wrought antihero. Among the other “Greatest Hits” is a duel from Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, both with their unique rhetorical flourishes, but the writer who captured the grim mindset that defined a good duelist was Ivan Turgenev from his Fathers and Sons. Turgenev’s Bazarov is one of 19th century Russia’s most celebrated rakes, and the star of this, our final sampling from the Illuminations for Alexander Kuprin‘s The Duel.

‘I am sensible of my obligation to you,’ replied Pavel Petrovitch; ‘and may reckon then on your accepting my challenge without compelling me to resort to violent measures.’

‘That means, speaking without metaphor, to that stick?’ Bazarov remarked coolly. ‘That is precisely correct. It’s quite unnecessary for you to insult me. Indeed, it would not be a perfectly safe proceeding. You can remain a gentleman…. I accept your challenge, too, like a gentleman.’

‘That is excellent,’ observed Pavel Petrovitch, putting his stick in the corner. ‘We will say a few words directly about the conditions of our duel; but I should like first to know whether you think it necessary to resort to the formality of a trifling dispute, which might serve as a pretext for my challenge?’

‘No; it’s better without formalities.’

‘I think so myself. I presume it is also out of place to go into the real grounds of our difference. We cannot endure one another. What more is necessary?’

‘What more, indeed?’ repeated Bazarov ironically.

‘As regards the conditions of the meeting itself, seeing that we shall have no seconds—for where could we get them?’

‘Exactly so; where could we get them?’

‘Then I have the honour to lay the following proposition before you: The combat to take place early to-morrow, at six, let us say, behind the copse, with pistols, at a distance of ten paces….’

‘At ten paces? that will do; we hate one another at that distance.’

‘We might have it eight,’ remarked Pavel Petrovitch.

‘We might.’

‘To fire twice; and, to be ready for any result, let each put a letter in his pocket, in which he accuses himself of his end.’

‘Now, that I don’t approve of at all,’ observed Bazarov. ‘There’s a slight flavour of the French novel about it, something not very plausible.’

‘Perhaps. You will agree, however, that it would be unpleasant to incur a suspicion of murder?’

‘I agree as to that. But there is a means of avoiding that painful reproach. We shall have no seconds, but we can have a witness.’

‘And whom, allow me to inquire?’

‘Why, Piotr.’

‘What Piotr?’

‘Your brother’s valet. He’s a man who has attained to the acme of contemporary culture, and he will perform his part with all the comilfo (comme il faut) necessary in such cases.’

‘I think you are joking, sir.’

‘Not at all. If you think over my suggestion, you will be convinced that it’s full of common-sense and simplicity. You can’t hide a candle under a bushel; but I’ll undertake to prepare Piotr in a fitting manner, and bring him on to the field of battle.’

‘You persist in jesting still,’ Pavel Petrovitch declared, getting up from his chair. ‘But after the courteous readiness you have shown me, I have no right to pretend to lay down…. And so, everything is arranged…. By the way, perhaps you have no pistols?’

‘How should I have pistols, Pavel Petrovitch? I’m not in the army.’

‘In that case, I offer you mine. You may rest assured that it’s five years now since I shot with them.’

‘That’s a very consoling piece of news.’