The Duel by Alexander Kuprin Translated by Josh Billings

the duel kuprinRussian writer Alexander Kuprin (1870-1938) based his 1905 novel The Duel on his experience in the Russian infantry where he spent four years in a provincial outpost in the Ukraine.

I’m guessing he didn’t have a very good time.

Kuprin was drummed out of the infantry after an altercation with a local police officer over an insult.  He then turned full-time to writing.  Living in Kiev as a successful author, he became part of Lenin’s circle but broke with him when he refused to back a workers newspaper Kuprin wanted to start.  Later, Kuprin fled Russia after joining a counter-revolutionary group in 1919 and did not return until 1937 when he was given a hero’s welcome.

I imagine most people whose lives spanned the 19th and the 20th century the way Kuprin’s did have equally dramatic stories to tell.

The depiction of life among infantry officers in The Duel reminded me of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22.  While it’s not a straight-out comedy the way Catch 22 is there is a similar sense of humor running through-out The Duel, an exhausted, disbelieving sense of bewilderment that what  happens in the course of military life is really happening at all. At times the events and characters in The Duel can be a bit hard to believe.  What’s happening is so outrageous, so unjust, that our desire for it not to be true starts to force us to disbelieve it can be true.

The most stunning outrage to me was the way the Russian infantry officers abused the men in their charge. Soldiers were forced to give money to their superiors, to buy them drinks on a regular basis.  If they didn’t, then they would not be given the “voluntary” positions which paid the small bonuses that made life in the Russian military affordable.  Soldiers who could not afford to buy new uniforms on a regular basis simply wore uniforms until they wore out completely.  Any man who complained or who didn’t measure up was beaten by his superiors, sometimes until he had to be treated by the company doctors.

It’s little wonder so many of them were ready to join the revolution when it came.

Life is better for the officers and their wives but not by much.  In this long passage describing the main characters Romashov’s duty as master of ceremonies at an officers’ dance Alexander Kuprin manages to sum up life among the infantry officers and their wives in provincial outposts:

Little by little, the women began to arrive. A year earlier Romashov had loved these minutes before the ball began, when in his capacity as master of ceremonies, he greeted the women as they passed through the entrance hall.  How secretive and charming they had seemed to him, as, excited by the lights, music, and the promise of dancing, they cast off their bonnets, boas and fur coats in a whirl of happy activity.  Along with their laughter and chatter they brought a smell of frost, perfume, powder, and kid gloves into the narrow entry hall: the elusive, deeply moving odor of a beautiful and well-dressed woman before a ball.  How sparkling and love-drunk their eyes looked in the mirror, as they briskly adjusted their hair! What music their rustling skirts made! How wonderful it felt to touch their small hands, their scarves, their fans!….

By now, however, this delight had vanished, and Romashov knew it wasn’t coming back.  These days he understood, with no small amount of shame, that much of that charm had been lifted from bad French novels, in which heroes with names like Gustav and Arman were invariable making the same pass through the vestibules of this or that Russian embassy ball.  Likewise he knew that, year after year, if they thought the night was going to be particularly splendid, the women of the regiment hauled out the same “chic” dress, and scrubbed their gloves with benzene, in a pitiful attempt to gussy it up.  Their shared passion for scarves, oversized fake jewelry, feathers, and too many ribbons seemed funny and pretentious to him: evidence of a kind of ragged, tasteless, homegrown luxuriousness. They put on greasy-looking ceruse and blush, but the effect was clumsy and crudely naive; their faces were shadowed an ominous blue color.  But the most disgusting thing of all for Romashov was the fact that he, like everyone else in the regiment, was privy to the secret history of each dress and ball, down to the last coquettish remark.  He knew what all these efforts were hiding; the pitiful poverty, the pains, artfulness, scandals, the reciprocated hatred, the slavish provincial game of good manners, and finally, the boring insipid liaisons…..

(I loved those two paragraphs.  While I can’t say The Duel is the best book I’ve read in some time, those are the two best paragraphs I’ve read in a long time. They are why The Duel is my new favorite book.)

This view of things that once were attractive having lost their lustre recurs in The Duel.  It basically sums up the narrator’s view of life in the Russian army and by extension in Russia in general.  There’s a sense that everything has passed its prime, long passed in many cases.

Towards the end, Romashov is finally faced with participating in an actual duel.  What surprised me most about this is that the duel is a sentence handed down by a court of officers.  After Romashov is accused by another of ruining his reputation, the court of officers reviews the case and sentences the two men to a duel.  Whether or not each will participate or resign their commission in disgrace makes up the final chapters of the novel.

I won’t divulge what happens, but we are talking about a Russian novel so you can probably guess.

I’m keeping all of my Art of the Novella editions in a small but growing collection.  Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel is one that I plan on reading again someday.

One thought on “The Duel by Alexander Kuprin Translated by Josh Billings

  1. That is a poignant passage – the beautiful (idealised?) past set in powerful contrast to the disappointment of the present. It makes me want to go read some Russian literature.

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