“Napoleon I., whose career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe, disliked duelling between the officers of his army. The great military emperor was not a swashbuckler, and had little respect for tradition. Nevertheless, a story of duelling, which became a legend in the army, runs through the epic of imperial wars. To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage. They were officers of cavalry, and their connection with the high-spirited but fanciful animal which carries men into battle seems particularly appropriate. It would be difficult to imagine for heroes of this legend two officers of infantry of the line, whose fantasy is tamed by much walking exercise, and whose valour must necessarily must be of a more plodding kind. As to the gunners or engineers, whose heads are kept cool on a diet of mathematics, it is simply unthinkable.”
So begins Joseph Conrad`s novella, The Duel; a slight tale of 115 pages you may say to yourself when browsing it`s contents with a cursory glance. But Conrad is a masterful writer, who does not need a thousand pages of waffle and padding to spear the essential meaning of his thoughts onto the sharp end of a pen. This extraordinary little book encompasses the entire span of the Napoleonic Wars of Europe, as we follow two officers of cavalry from the battlefields of mass carnage which were Napoleon`s calling card on his neighbours; who, enfolded within it`s destructive breast, like two small babes suckling on their mother`s bloody milk, fought a private war of tooth and claw, of equal brutality, barbarity and inhumanity each to the other, as a merciless reflection of Napoleon`s blinding and limitless ambition. Like the greater events which originally enabled their private contest to the death, original purpose and reason were slowly replaced in a world gone mad by violence to another as nothing more than force of habit.
Does it matter how the enmity started, the first perceived insult from one to the other? Time had rendered such questions virtually irrelevant; as with Napoleon`s original intentions of going to war, the duel had long since taken on a life of it`s own, and removed all personal responsibility for it`s outcome from it`s protagonists. The duel was a microcosm of unrestrained Napoleonic ego, reflecting the sadness and poignancy of human conflict: to sit down and talk, to listen and reason the whys and the wherefores of conflict is all that is needed to settle disputes; but men must preen and strut across the yard like cocks of the heap, and display their colourful feathers. When the sword is removed from it`s scabbard there is no backing down at any price; personal honour is everything, and must be maintained, whether the original slight is imagined, or intentioned. The Romans had a pungent saying when matters of war are at a tipping point……….“When the Ram hits the gate, all bets are off.”
Joseph Conrad had a very particular way with the English language; it was his third language, behind Polish and French, and the structure of his sentences and choice of phrase and words reflect this. T.E. Lawrence was a friend and commentated……
“He`s absolutely the most haunting thing in prose there ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes (….they are all paragraphs: he seldom writes a single sentence…) goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops. It`s not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can`t say or do or think. So his books always look bigger than they are. He`s as much a giant of the subjective as Kipling is of the objective. Do they hate one another?”
During the Napoleonic period of history, duelling was basically socially licensed murder for toffs: if someone didn`t like the cut of another`s jib, that would seem to have been sufficient reason for “calling” him out; the smallest, imperceivable slight was often considered more than enough for pistols at dawn. Fatality, more often than not, came from the onset of infection in a wound, or from the primitive medical assistance, rather than from a mortal strike; an unclean weapon or clothing forced into the wound would ultimately be the victim`s death sentence. And, because the concept of germs was zero, the mortality rate with the smallest infection was extremely high; giving birth was a particularly dangerous time, simply because the hands and instruments of the doctor were teeming with murderous microscopic killers just as deadly as a sword or musket shot.
The origin of our duel in question is as absurd as a cock exercising it`s tonsils in the middle of a farm yard; Captain D`Hubert had never been able to remember how he had affronted Feraud: possibly in a drinking establishment while under the influence? Whatever, Feraud immediately challenges D`Hubert in a literally shooting the messenger moment of insanity…..And so it begins.
“A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honour, or even when reduced in it`s moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.”
~~ Joseph Conrad, A Set of Six ~~
Conrad`s novella of a world where personal dignity and honour is the only important thing to live for, which over-rides all other considerations of what it really means to be a human being, is a tour de force of minimalism; every word has it`s unembellished place in a book which is as spare as a racing snake on a low carb diet. The Duel is an outstanding example of how a novellist can, with just a few essential passages, describe every concern and meaning of what it is to be human, and the consequences when you lose that humanity and reason.