Touché: The Duel in Literature by John Leigh - review by Jonathan Keates

Jonathan Keates

Pencils at Dawn

Touché: The Duel in Literature


Harvard University Press 334pp £20 order from our bookshop

Except in an occasional, jokey, ironic fashion, nobody fights duels any more. Of all the various ways in which European and American manhood has sought, over the centuries, to validate itself, this must be one of the most absurd. A so-called affair of honour, its ritual demanding a choice of weapons, the assistance of seconds and the presence of a doctor to perform the necessary headshaking should injury result in death, a duel satisfies nothing except the inflated amour-propre of the surviving challenger. Whatever the allure of this kind of pseudo-gallantry might once have been, nowadays the crack of pistols at dawn or the clatter of unbuttoned fencing sabres constitutes a retro step too far.

With all its attitudinising, self-righteousness and snobbery, the duel has been a gift for writers ever since the 16th century, when reputation-conscious Spanish noblemen began working out an appropriate etiquette for stabbing one other (shooting was a later sophistication) in the best possible taste. As John Leigh points out in his introduction to Touché, ‘a sometimes elusive set of converging factors renders the duellist peculiarly sympathetic to the writer’s mind or sensibility … Literary depictions of duels make them seem honourable. The conventions and the style associated with the duel are not just endorsed but endowed by the texts.’

Beginning with Corneille’s heroic drama Le Cid, adapted, significantly, from a Spanish original, Leigh spreads his net as broadly as possible across the field of honour in fiction and drama. Clarissa, Les liaisons dangereuses and The Three Musketeers are here, together with short stories by Mérimée, Maupassant and Pirandello, but so too are the farcical encounter between Judge Driscoll and the Capello twins in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson and the meeting of the terror-struck Winkle with the implacable Dr Slammer in The Pickwick Papers. Surprisingly, Leigh makes only a brief reference to the last scene of Hamlet, one of the best known of all such engagements, while Chekhov’s Three Sisters, part of the tragicomic catastrophe of which turns on Baron Tuzenbach’s death in a pointless duel with the pedantic, self-loathing Solyony, is not mentioned at all.

Such omissions are justified if we approach this study in the spirit of its chosen theme. Whatever its apparently stringent punctilio, a duel always carried with it some improvisatory aspect, what Leigh calls ‘a sort of joyous death-defying creativity, an ingenuity which almost excuses the fatalities that followed’. Touché itself has something of this quality. The depth and scope of Leigh’s reading are never in doubt, but it is the idiosyncratic wilfulness of his enthusiasm that frees this book from the dead hand of cultural studies under which it might otherwise have languished.

As the vogue for duelling spread across Europe, monarchs and their ministers reacted angrily to the concept of fencers and marksmen killing each other not just to preserve a good name but for the sheer hell of it. The latter motive inspires the heroes of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 story ‘A Duel’. Napoleonic officers Feraud and D’Hubert, a hot-blooded Gascon and a sober Picard, have evolved their own private discourse of single combat, transcending the more humdrum conflict between national armies unfolding around them. The pair are ideal opponents: Feraud is distinguished by his ferocity, vigour and spontaneity; D’Hubert is more measured and thoughtful in approaching his adversary.

Their meetings on the field of honour take place over fourteen years, during which time both men, distinguishing themselves in various campaigns, attain the rank of general. After 1815 D’Hubert is contemplating marriage and a comfortable domesticity. Feraud, on the other hand, is solitary, drifting and disheartened. Neither, however, has lost the peculiar enthusiasm, a hobby of sorts, that bound each to the other in the first place. D’Hubert, says Conrad, ‘felt an irrational tenderness towards his old adversary and appreciated emotionally the murderous absurdity their encounter had introduced into his life’. The pair face one another for the last time, but you must savour the tale’s unusual ending for yourselves. Leigh might have read Conrad’s narrative as a ‘bromance’, or even as a drama of suppressed sexuality. Instead he chooses to locate it alongside Maupassant’s ‘A Coward’ and Schnitzler’s ‘Leutnant Gustl’ – duelling stories that enshrine an individual’s profound desire to challenge and overcome the kind of opponent who most perfectly resembles himself.

These fictional duellists are a surprisingly sympathetic and touching collection. Take Sir Lucius O’Trigger in Sheridan’s The Rivals, a character too easily dismissed as merely the engine of a diverting subplot. Leigh’s reading of the play is not always accurate. For example, the ‘toilet’ under which Lydia Languish hides her romantic novels from Mrs Malaprop is actually a dressing table, not a lavatory, and David’s ‘poor bitch’ Phyllis is a dog rather than a woman. However, in other respects Leigh’s analysis is persuasive. Sir Lucius becomes a figure of impressive seriousness, a dedicated stylist paradoxically mingling grandeur and gentility with ‘the mud and soil of actuality’ in his search for an ideal mode of duelling, one that need not necessarily involve the firing of a single shot.

Sheridan’s pugnacious Irishman lays great emphasis on stance and presentation in the engagement itself. Similar questions of approach condition Leigh’s study as a whole. Examining Dumas’s classic duelling text The Three Musketeers in the light of its handling of swordsmanship, Leigh encourages us to read it as a search for vanished innocence in which the quixotic D’Artagnan ‘sees windmills turn back into knights’. Victor Hugo’s drama Marion de Lorme, dating from the same period, becomes a hymn to self-reliant individualism, with the duellist as a modern democrat relentless in his search for justice.

From here, as Leigh’s urbane and elegantly penned study suggests, we need travel no very great distance towards a whole variety of modern improvisations on the affair of honour, no less valid and intensely imagined for their lack of blades or bullets. Among them he adduces mountaineering, the race for the South Pole between Scott and Amundsen and, bizarre at first glance, the penalty shoot-out in a football match. ‘Of all sports, soccer probably allows some sort of approximation to the conditions of the duel,’ he declares, referring to the fact that the crucial twelve yards between the penalty spot and the goal is neither more nor less than that ‘gentlemanly distance’ referred to by Byron when discussing duels in Don Juan.

Well, yes, why ever not? With glances at the dusty street in the film High Noon, at a crucial photograph in W G Sebald’s Austerlitz and at the Spitfire combats of Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy, Leigh seems to imply that there is life left in the whole performative business of the duel. The enterprise of imaginative literature, after all, is predicated on an unending engagement: the one taking place between the writer and his inner enemy.

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