I picked up Chekhov’s The Duel because I wanted to read it before watching the film version. My copy of The Duel is from a collection of Chekhov’s short novels, and it’s a translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I have a fascination for dueling, and it’s a topic I’ll read about if I get the chance. Imagine getting pissed at someone at work, smacking them back and forth across the face with a pair of gloves, and then … pistols at dawn.
Maupassant included a duel in Bel Ami in a wonderful section of one of my favourite novels. The duel takes place between rival journalists, and Georges (Bel Ami) is more-or-less shoved into it. Terrified, he gets drunk beforehand. It’s duel as farce, and when it’s over, exaggeration sets in. In Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, we see the social significance of the duel which must only take place between social equals. You can’t duel with a peasant!
Then, of course, there’s Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time–an incredible novel in which a duel becomes a defining moment for the central character. There’s also Kuprin’s The Duel ; in this book the duel seen as a type of social dominance but it’s also a symptom of the decay of Russian society. Can’t forget, of course, that both Lermontov and Pushkin met their all-too-early deaths as the result of duels. What a waste.
Chekhov wrote The Duel while also working on Sakhalin Island. The latter, Chekov’s longest published work is a non-fiction account of life in Siberia’s “most notorious penal colony.” The introduction to my copy, written by translator Richard Pevear, stresses that Chekhov’s experiences at Sakhalin had a profound, although, indirect, impact on The Duel. After reading Chekhov’s The Duel, I have the sense that Chekhov saw dueling as a silly, dangerous social drama, and yet at the same time, the duel that takes place in this excellent novella has some unexpected ramifications….
The Duel is set in a seaside town in the Caucasus, and the story focuses on just a handful of characters. One of the main characters is 28-year-old Ivan Andreich Laevsky. He’s a minor bureaucrat, and he proudly calls himself a “superfluous man.” He’s run off to the Caucasus with another man’s wife, Nadezhda Fyodorovna, and when the story begins, the romance between the two has cooled considerably. Local doctor, the “sinless” Samoilenko, is Laevsky’s confidant while the two men swim one day:
“Answer me one question, Alexander Davidych,” Laevsky began, when the two of them, he and Samoilenko, had gone into the water up to their shoulders. “Let’s say you fell in love with a woman and became intimate with her; you lived with her, let’s say, for more than two years, and then, as it happens, you fell out of love and began to feel she was a stranger to you. How would you behave in such a case?”
Laevsky’s question isn’t, of course, theoretical. He’s tired of Nadezhda and wants to get rid of her. The situation is complicated by the fact that Nadezhda’s husband has died, and Laevsky has just received a letter with the news. He’s reluctant to tell Nadezhda as now he’ll be expected to marry her. But he’s asking for advice from the wrong person. Samoilenko is a bachelor and envies Laevsky’s relationship with the beautiful and intelligent Nadezhda. Samoilenko tells Laevsky that “love can’t last long,” and that it’s his “duty” to marry the woman he’s ruined.
Laevsky argues with Samoilenko, presenting extenuating circumstances in his effort to get the answer he wants to hear. Eventually Laevsky hits on the idea of borrowing money from Samoilenko so that he can return to his mother in Russia, or even “escape” North and abandon Nadezhda in the process. Samoilenko tries to borrow the money from zoologist von Koren. Von Koren who hates Laevsky sniffs that Samoilenko wants to borrow the money only to give it to Laevsky, and the request sets off a chain of dramatic events.
The Duel reminds me of The Lady with the Dog for its modern approach to human behaviour. At one point, Laevsky bitches about Nadezhda to Samoilenko:
Yes, she loves me to the extent that, at her age, and with her temperament, she needs a man. It would be as hard for her to part with me as with powder or curling papers. I’m a necessary component of her boudoir.
Laevsky is very judgmental about Nadezhda. Can she be as bad as he says she is?
Laevsky’s dislike of Nadezhda Fyodorovna expressed itself chiefly in the fact that everything she said or did seemed to him a lie or the semblance of a lie, and that everything he read against women and love seemed to go perfectly with himself.
He seems unduly harsh. Can Nadezhda really be that shallow? Well we soon find out the answer to that question. While Laevsky is beginning to loathe Nadezhda, von Koren despises Laevsky and finds him utterly transparent and hold him responsible for the moral decline of the community:
The activity of Mr. Laevsky is openly unrolled before you like a long Chinese scroll, and you can read it from beginning to end. What has he done in the two years he’s been living here? Let’s count on our fingers. First, he has taught the town inhabitants to play vint; two years ago the game was unknown here, but now everybody plays vint from morning till night, even the women and adolescents; second, he has taught the townspeople to drink beer, which was also unknown here; to him they also owe a knowledge of various kinds of vodka, so they can now tell Koshelev’s from Smirnov’s No. 21 blindfolded. Third, before, they lived with other men’s wives here secretly, for the same motives that thieves steal secretly and not openly; adultery was considered something shameful to expose to general view; Laevsky appears to be a pioneer in that respect: he lives openly with another man’s wife.
While Chekhov’s novella concerns a duel, there’s another duel taking place–the duel between opposing ideas, and these opposing ideas are embodied by the two characters, Laevsky and von Koren–with the former representing the “liberal egotism of the 1840s” while von Koren is representative of the “rational egoism of the 1860s.” Here’s von Koren on why he loathes Laevsky and all he stands for:
From the very first, he struck me with his extraordinary falseness, which simply made me sick. In the quality of a friend, I chided him, asking why he drank so much. Why he lived beyond his means and ran up debts, why he did nothing and read nothing, why he had so little culture and so little knowledge, and in answer to all my questions, he would smile bitterly, sigh, and say: ‘I’m a luckless fellow, a superfluous man,’ or ’What do you want, old boy, from us remnants of serfdom,’ or ‘We’re degenerating…’ Or he would start pouring out some lengthy drivel about Onegin, Pechorin, Byron’s Cain, Bazarov of whom he said: ‘They are our fathers in flesh and spirit.’ Meaning he is not to blame that official packets lie unopened for weeks and that he drinks and gets others to drink, but the blame goes to Onegin, Pechorin, and Turgenev, who invented the luckless fellow and the superfluous man. The cause of extreme licentiousness and outrageousness, as you see, lies not in him but somewhere outside, in space. And besides–clever trick!-it’s not he alone who is dissolute, false, and vile, but we… ‘we, the people of the eighties,’ ‘we, the sluggish and nervous spawn of serfdom,’ ‘civilization has crippled us…’
Or in other words, as von Koren continues, Laevsky is but a “victim of the times.”
In Chekhov’s novella we see the duel as farce, but it’s a worn-out, tired farce. And since this is Chekhov, the author’s humanism will not permit the duel to be but a cruel joke–instead it’s a tragifarce–an event that leaves his characters both mystified and a little humbled by the experience.