Joseph Conrad’s novella The Duel represents a certain class of work that “I know when I see it,” but have a hard time describing very well. Let’s call it, as they say, “the work of a master at the height of his powers.” But a caveat is necessary—it’s not a masterpiece, or a master work, or anything that suggests being the most important thing a writer wrote, or the greatest thing. There are a few much more magnificent books vying for that title among Conrad’s oevre, and The Duel is simply not long or substantial enough to rise to such a level. But that too is an important characteristic of the class of books I’m trying to describe: they should be small and fine and, probably, finer than they could be if they were bigger. These are the Bartlebys, not the Moby-Dicks. I could call these things, after Bolaño, “the perfect exercises of the great masters.” Some might find that “exercises” deprecating—Bolaño himself may have meant it that way—but I don’t consider it so, and it seems apt.
Of course, for all the world I wouldn’t give up those “great, imperfect, torrential works,” but an afternoon spent in rapt appreciation of these cleaner, more wrought things can feel like a gift. The masters are greatest when they give us both.
Part of the problem with such works, though, is that even now I’ve tried to narrow down what I mean by this category, I can’t imagine rightfully explaining why The Duel belongs in it. If you’ve read Conrad, and you read this, you’ll know. I’ll give you instead the almost priceless second paragraph. The first describes how Napoleon doesn’t approve of duels between his army officers, even though his “career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe.”
Nevertheless, a story of duelling, which became a legend in the army, runs through the epic of imperial wars. To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage. They were officers of cavalry, and their connection with the high-spirited but fanciful animal which carries men into battle seems parrticularly appropriate. It would be difficult to imagine for heroes of this legend two officers of infantry of the line, for example, whose fantasy is tamed by much walking exercise, and whose valour necessarily must be of a more plodding kind. As to gunners or engineers, whose heads are kept cool on a diet of mathematics, it is simply unthinkable.
Artists of the duel. The perfect cavalry officers. The wreckage and bombast of the Napoleonic wars. It is a wonderful and beautiful legend, and Conrad has written into it one of his lovely introspective, serious heroes, even if he is romantic enough to be duelling madly across Europe. Because he is in fact not duelling madly; he is duelling doggedly and with a cold hard logic.
I hope to report back soon on whether Flaubert’s A Simple Heart is, as 2666 claims, another such perfect exercise.