July 8, 2016
The Art of the Novella Challenge 49: The Duel (Conrad)
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Duel
Author: Joseph Conrad
First published: 1908
Page count: 115
First line: Napoleon I., whose career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe, disliked duelling between the officers of his army.
So, the fifth in the Art of the Novella series’s five duels, and its second Conrad, after Freya of the Seven Isles. Looking back at those four other Duels, it’s clear that they are a brilliant subset of the series, a capsule collection if you will, and really deserve a special essay teasing out the different aspects of the duel as concept… as narrative concept… as narrative concept in the novella…
If you’ve stumbled on this post, then I’d happily send you scuttling for Chekhov’s Duel, with its setting of exquisite anomie and the boundless compassion the author manages to find there; for Casanova’s, for its specificity of detail, and low dangerous hiss of facticity, and the desperate ickiness of the relationship between duellists, for whom the woman at the root of their quarrel is but an excuse for the performance of noble manners, as they strut and preen like manakins manning up in a forest clearing; then to Kleist’s for a weird, modern take on medievalism; and to Kuprin, not someone I had read before, but who gives Chekhov a run for his money in the minor-key Russian loser-character stakes.
The Conrad, though. Published in 1910 and set a century earlier, during and after the Napoleonic Wars, it is another exemplary entry in the series, a flat-out justification of the insistence on the novella as distinct form, being a narrative sufficient to its telling, and streamlined to its plot; or being the necessary elaboration of an anecdote, and its clear grounding in the medium of prose, home to the novel and so amenable to all that form’s tricks and manoeuvres, but stopping always short of the novelistic gambit that in its particular combination, a vague but nonetheless jealously guarded recipe of concrete detail and psychological insight, of trompe l’oeil realism and interiority, could, in theory, explain the whole world.
Conrad’s Duel is thin and long as a lance. It doesn’t prance, it doesn’t preen, it doesn’t meander or charge. It just sets up its narrative premise and then moves, expeditiously, through the set of exercises that suggest themselves. The premise, expanded with much imaginative addition from a contemporary anecdote, is one of two duellists who carry on their rivalry throughout their entire career, though no one but them knows the true, and truly insignificant, event that sparked the conflict.
Two characters we need, and two we get. Two French hussars, one embittered and aggrieved towards his rival, the other far more bewildered and reluctant. The story runs from the early 1800s, at the start of Napoleon’s reign, to some time after his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. These characters, and especially the reluctant D’Hubert, are fleshed but never padded out. No other character is given more than a line or two of detail. The setting — the backdrop, in theatrical terms — is taken straight from history. You will search in vain for evocative description. Here is a paragraph from the retreat from Moscow:
On the outskirts of a village half buried in the snow an old wooden barn burned with a clear and an immense flame. The sacred battalion of skeletons, muffled in rags, crowded greedily the windward side, stretching hundreds of numbed, bony hands to the blaze. Nobody had noted their approach. Before entering the circle of light playing on the sunken, glassy-eyed, starved faces, Colonel D’Hubert spoke in his turn:
“Here’s your musket, Colonel Feraud. I can walk better than you.”
That’s about as eloquent as Conrad gets, apart from a few terse stabs at the central characters (“one tall, with an interesting face and a moustache the colour of ripe corn, the other, short and sturdy, with a hooked nose and a thick crop of black curly hair”). Or, later, when they are older:
The first signs of a not unbecoming baldness added to the lofty aspect of Colonel D’Hubert’s forehead. This feature was no longer white and smooth as in the days of his youth; the kindly open glance of his blue eyes had grown a little hard as if from much peering through the smoke of battles. The ebony crop on Colonel Feraud’s head, coarse and crinkly like a cap of horsehair, showed many silver threads about the temples. A detestable warfare of ambushes and inglorious surprises had not improved his temper. The beak-like curve of his nose was unpleasantly set off by a deep fold on each side of his mouth. The round orbits of his eyes radiated wrinkles. More than ever he recalled an irritable and staring bird—something like a cross between a parrot and an owl.
Here, just for contrast, is Heart of Darkness, with Marlow describing his first sight of Kurtz:
I could not hear a sound, but through my glasses I saw the thin arm extended commandingly, the lower jaw moving, the eyes of that apparition shining darkly far in its bony head that nodded with grotesque jerks. Kurtz—Kurtz—that means short in German—don’t it? Well, the name was as true as everything else in his life—and death. He looked at least seven feet long. His covering had fallen off, and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding-sheet. I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze. I saw him open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.
There is nothing — nothing — like this in The Duel. It’s hard not to think that Conrad’s best works come from his direct personal experience, while The Duel is a mere exercise in narrative. Well, that may be the case, but as exercises in narrative go, it’s a brilliant one. The relationship between the resigned, dignified D’Hubert and the fiery, paranoid, obsessed Feraud is superbly taut, down to the “irrational tenderness” the former comes to feel for the latter, as the poor vengeful idiot digs himself a hole, only for history to come along and threaten to bury him alive in it.
Look how the descriptions of the duels themselves regulate themselves according to narrative demand. The first one is given in detail, played out as drama, as is the last, climactic — but oh so very different — one. In fifteen years they have moved from youth to age, from sabres to pistols, to points of honour and fields at dawn to an uncertain, absurd trudge into a small wood, one from either side, to seek out and murder the other, just to have done with it. The half a dozen or so other encounters are skimmed right over: they have a structural purpose now, and that will suffice.
If Casanova’s Duel was the one that cast the very idea of the duel as a bromantic fantasy, and Kuprin’s and Chekhov’s as a sordid romantic hangover, then Conrad’s joins Kleist’s as one that sees the duel as essentially dualistic, even Manichean: the person we face down, with sword or pistol, at dawn in a field, is not our brother, or a social annoyance we would otherwise have to deal with by other means, but our dark reflection, our bad twin, that part of ourselves we try to repress. As a piece of Conrad’s writing, then, this is not necessarily one I’d put above Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness — it carries the weight neither of a moral quandary, nor of a colonial wound — but as a novella it stands proudly at the centre of the Duel quintet.