The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Anti-Romanticism and Despair

the duelIn spite of the possibility of a deadly outcome, in literature and film duels often have a romantic connotation. But for those who love Russian literature it’s impossible to forget that duels destroyed the great Russian writers, Pushkin and Lermontov.  In the novel The Duel byRussian Silver Age writer Alexander Kuprin, duels are a symptom of a twisted, decaying society destined to shortly self-destruct.

Published in 1905, The Duel is the story of Second Lieutenant Romashov who’s stationed in a drab little town in Southern Russia. The story begins with Romashov and some of his fellow officers during training exercises as they discuss slights and insults to their notions of honour:

There was the young ensign ‘who didn’t even shave yet’ scattering ‘a knot of gesticulating Jews’ at a street corner in a small frontier town. There was the lieutenant who slashed a student to death in a Kiev dance hall because the student had jogged him with his elbow at a bar. There was the officer in a restaurant–was it in Moscow or Petersburg?–who shot down ‘like a mad dog’ a man who’d remarked to him that gentlemen do not try to pick up ladies who are accompanied by another gentleman.”

Romashov tries to reason with his fellow officers that  such “bloody on the spot reckonings” are morally questionable since the officers involved were armed and the civilians were not, but his words fall on deaf ears. This early scene illustrates Romashov’s alienation from the officer corp, and also his vaguely uncomfortable attitude that something else must exist beyond the violent convoluted notions of honour and ceremony.

In The Duel Kuprin depicts a hellish existence within the strict, confining hierarchy of the army. While the days are spent on endless drills against enemies “such as rioters, students, horsethieves, Jews, Poles”, the evenings are devoted to tawdry company ‘balls.’ While at first Romashov was entranced by the apparent romanticism of these festive ceremonies, he now sees them as shabby, superficial affairs:

“He realised that much of the illusion had been created by bad novels, in which balls and the expectation of balls often figure. And he also knew now that the regimental ladies usually wore the same ball dresses for years, making pathetic attempts to alter them a bit, and that their white kid gloves had been painstakingly cleaned with benzine. The ladies’ love of pendants, brooches, imitation jewelry, ribbons, false flowers now seemed laughable, and pathetic to him, an artificial, tasteless home-made luxury. They used powder, rouge, eye shadow, used them unskillfully and naively, and because of this the faces of some of them had a sinister, ghostly air. But Romashov was mostly repelled because, like everyone else in the regiment, he knew too well the life behind every ball, every dress, almost every witty remark; he knew the miserable poverty, the painful efforts, the gossip, the mutual hatred, the colour-blind parody of elegance and sophistication, and finally the dull, boring love affairs which were a part of this life.” 

At the beginning of the novel, Romashov is engaged in the army’s pathetically sad social life, drinks to excess and is mired in a rather limp affair with an unpleasant married woman he dislikes.  But even as he begins to despair about his life, he’s unable to significantly alter the path he has chosen. Trapped, he flails around unhappily with his fellow officers. Some of Romashov’s questioning and reappraisal of his life is manifested through his relationship with the soldier Private Khlebnikov, the platoon’s underdog. While Romashov bitterly cannot contemplate a life outside of the army, he shows compassion for Khlebnikov who is mistreated and savagely beaten by non-coms. Romashov identifies with Khlebnikov’s misery and calling him “my brother,” he persuades Khlebnikov not to desert and argues that although “it’s all senseless, savage cruel nonsense,” they “have to take it.” While Romashov’s compassion for Khlebnikov is admirable, it’s also apparent that due to vast class differences, Romashov is incapable of truly grasping the Private’s position in life. Compared to Khlebnikov, who is beaten daily and must hand over his paltry wages to bribe non-coms with “presents,” Romashov leads a life of relative privilege. But in spite of the disparity between these two men, Romashov’s connection with Khlebnikov has a sobering effect on the young officer as he recognizes the misery of a fellow human being.

One of the novel’s greatest characters is Lieutenant-colonel Rafaelsky who lives in relative isolation in a ramshackle house known as the ‘zoo.’ The officer, who’s single, is completely absorbed in his haphazard collection of animals, and Rafaelsky successfully manages to avoid army society for the most part while he concentrates on his ‘hobby.’ As a result, he is the only character in the novel who can be categorised as ‘happy’ and his greatest worry is whether or not the regiment will be reassigned since that will mean moving his aquarium.

The novel is packed with intricate details of Russian society and army life, and of course notions of honour and duels figure prominently. In one scene, officers discuss what makes a duel authentic.

“A duel, gentlemen, if it is to take place at all must have fatal or, at least, very serious consequences. Otherwise it’d be nothing but stupid horseplay, make-believe, a farce. The fifty-step-distance and one single shot affair is just bad taste, a sentimental comedy, like those French duels we read about in the papers. ‘The duel had a happy ending. The opponents exchanged shots without injuring each other but displayed throughout the procedure admirable courage and composure. At breakfast the erstwhile foes exchanged a friendly handshake.’ Such dueling, gentlemen, is nonsense–and certainly its introduction won’t improve our conduct.”

And of course, the duel in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami is just one of those farces with the participants egged on by others, Bel Ami showing up drunk and both men widely missing their targets–although of course their stories later told how the bullets whistled by their ears.  

Apart from the wonderful social commentary of the times, the novel shows how Romashov is hopelessly trapped in the corrupted societal systems in a decayed, suffocating culture. Romashov’s friend, the alcoholic Nazansky, encourages him to leave the army, but depressed and held prisoner by a deadly lassitude, Romashov can envision no future beyond his uniform.  The Duel shows Russian society in its death throes. There’s no escape. Nowhere to go and no future.

It’s impossible to read Kuprin’s marvellous novel without thinking about one of my favourite novels, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Lermontov’s bored protagonist, Pechorin, the destructive hero of the novel is a young, handsome arrogant army officer. Written in 1839, the novel is full of descriptions of the wide open spaces of the Caucasus. While the novel also contains details of military life and its obligatory systems and ceremonies, Pechorin’s adventures are suffused with travel, adventure and Romanticism.

But while Pechorin is a fictional character (perhaps a fictional manifestation of Lermontov), Kropotkin’s memoirs detail Russia in transition from hope of reform to end-stage decay. The memoirs include a section in which Kropotkin selects a distant assignment in Siberia rather than stay with the career track of hobnobbing with the Tsar in St Petersburg. Kropotkin’s acquaintances thought he’d taken leave of his senses when he left for Siberia in 1862, but Kropotkin was still in his idealistic reform phase when he imagined that changes would really take place and that Russia, as he knew it would be transformed. Of course, Kropotkin’s suggested reforms fell foul of the reactionary wave that swept Russia and a few years later in 1873, Kropotkin was an anarchist languishing in Peter and Paul Fortress.

Kuprin’s Romashov is yet another example of the 19th century Russian literary phenomenon the Superfluous Man, and the list includes: Pushkin’s Onegin, Goncharov’s Oblomov, Lermontov’s Pechorin, and Turgenev’s Lavretsky (although I argue on the issue of Pechorin in my posts on that book). In The Duel, the superfluous man is Romashov, but here with the dying gasps of the Russian Empire, there are no shreds of romanticism left–just bleak despair of a man trapped in a cage constructed by a decayed and corrupt society in its final phase before complete chaos.

Translator Andrew R. MacAndrew explains that “Kuprin’s ‘unaffiliated’ protest against the cruelty of life under the Tsarist regime caused him trouble with authorities.” But no lover of the Bolsheviks, Kuprin went into an unsuccessful exile. He was  re-repatriated in 1938 and died shortly afterwards.


Filed under Kuprin Alexander

6 responses to “The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

  1. Sounds marvellous, what did you make of the translation? The quoted passages seem pretty good.

  2. Guy A. Savage

    I bought an old used tatty Signet paperback. To be honest I don’t know if there are any other translations out there, but this one read very well. I didn’t trip over any passages and nothing seemed to stick out.

    Apparently, Kuprin is widely read in Russia. I came across his name by chance.

    The copy of the book I have also has a few short stories.

  3. Susan

    Just finished this today–thank you for the insightful post. I am unfamiliar with Lermontov, but will need to rectify that. Have you read Chekhov’s The Duel, from 1891? A sort of old vs. new Russia going on there. That novella, Kuprin’s Duel, and Nabokov’s short story, An Affair of Honor, in his Quartet, make an interesting read of dueling from Russians. The night before the duel is the most consistent, transcendent, human.

    • I loved Chekhov’s the Duel. Have you seen the film version–not exactly faithful to the text but a beautiful film,nonetheless. I haven’t read Nabokov’s short story that you mention, so I’ll have to rectify that. I have, as you can probably tell, a thing about duels. Thanks for the comment (which reminded me that I have a book about a duel sitting on the shelf collecting dust).

  4. I still laugh at the duel in Bel-Ami–especially since French duels are the subject of jokes in Kuprin’s The Duel.

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