We’re into the 20th Century now and getting closer and closer to revolution, but it’s going to very hard for any book to live up to the crazily high standard set by the giants of the Golden age.
I don’t want to sound dismissive, it’s just that the 19th Century was wonderful and ‘The Duel’ is a good book, but not a great book. It follows the adventures and misadventures of Romashov, a sub-lieutenant, struggling with the tedium and cruelty that is evidently an inescapable component of life in a dull garrison. In large metaphorical terms, it is Kuprin’s own ‘duel’ with Tzarist autocracy, but it’s better to think of it as a novel in which people try to shoot each other for the pettiest of reasons.
1. Kuprin has invented an early Walter Mitty who is far happier in his imaginary world and suffers when this comes into contact with reality. Romashov get hugely caught up in his daydreams of winning success and admiration. In a wonderful comic set piece, he lives out a brilliant fantasy of adoration ‘While he felt he was an object of delight and admiration to the eyes of all – a centre of all the universe contains of strength, beauty and delight, he said to himself, as though under the witchery of a heavenly dream – Look, look, there goes Romashov! The ladies’ eyes are shining with love and admiration. One, two; left, right, ‘Colonel Shugovich,’ shouts the General, ‘your Romashov is a priceless jewel; he must be my Adjunct.’ It’s only when he turns round to actually face the men he’s leading that he realises how much chaos was caused by his wandering steps as his head got stuck further and further into the clouds. Romashov is one of the most convincing day-dreamers in literature and, for this, I heartily salute Kuprin.
2. As well as self-indulgent fantasy, Romashov is a wonderful satire on the sentimental romantic hero. For example, in a fit of depression after yet another public humiliation ‘he walked about meditating suicide, though by no means seriously, but only – according to his ingrained habit – to pose in his own worthy person as a martyr and hero’. Not since Dostoyevsky have we come so close to tragic ineffectiveness. On a similarly sarcastic note, Romashov has another habit that I personally find hugely endearing: no matter how desperate or pathetic the situation, he will usually manage to ‘think of himself in the third person‘, for example: ‘And then he burst out into a bitter, contemptuous laugh‘, and ‘A bitter, ironical smile played on his thin lips‘. Try applying these descriptions to yourself at odd moments during the day (while reading e-mails, when shopping etc), it’s a lot of fun.
3. With a title like ‘The Duel’, this was never going to be a comedy and, for all my glibness, the serious condemnation of the army is very well done. In the opening scene, a young Tartar soldier, who does not understand Russian, is goaded to madness by his comander’s incomprehensible instructions. If you only read Tolstoy you would be left with the impression that serving in the Russian army was jolly good fun, suffused with stoicism and companionship. I suspect Kuprin is closer to the truth and his description of the torture and harshness meted out to the peasant conscripts fits far better with my non-literary research into the period.
What’s less good
It’s not Chernyshevshy territory, but there’s a lot of revolutionary theorising in this book. Towards the end, as Romashov gets more disillusioned with the whole military system and way of life, he finds himself drawn towards characters who can spell out exactly what’s wrong – at great length. Sadly, at a century’s distance these arguments don’t sound very new or exciting, but they do get a lot of space and unbalance what was an already fairly slight story-line. As for what this storyline is, you know the protagonist’s a young sub-lieutenant and the novel is called ‘The Duel’, Kuprin wasn’t going for suspense here.
Positives 3 Negatives 1
So overall, the positives heavily outweigh the negative. I don’t regret reading ‘The Duel’ and it certainly has a lot to enjoy, but I don’t recommend you put it too high on your Russian reading list – save that space for a 19th century novel.