In most stories, duels happen outside the law, or perhaps at its margins. People will look the other way if you leave town. You just have to make sure not to attract too much attention. Often sanctioned by the local code of honor, duels are not typically sanctioned by the legal regime in the 19th century or later.
And then you have late Tsarist Russia, where Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel is set. Here, if your honor as an officer is stained, you can actually be sentenced by a court martial to fight a duel to resolve the situation. Let me give you a moment to think about how crazy that is.
Kuprin’s novel—not novella—follows the largely idle life of Yuri Alexeyich Romashov, a sub-lieutenant recently out of cadet school and now stationed at a small town in the far west of the Russian empire. The life of the regiment is circumscribed by regulation as well as necessities financial and geographic. The officers are uniformly brutal and often malicious. The soldiers are an invisible gray mass lacking any definition, suitable only for beating and shouting at. Romashov struggles to understand this world around him, where everyone seems to act from motivations that make no sense, predicated as they are on the absurdities of war and the further absurdities of a standing army.
It’s the only life Romashov has ever thought of, though, having worked since a child to become an officer—not out of any special desire, but because of his family’s poverty and the lack of other options. As the young man’s sense of individuality blossoms, and his artistic and philosophical sides gain hold in his mind, he begins to realize he does not belong here. But Romashov can’t imagine a civilian life. “‘Why would anyone get involved with such ridiculous, strange, filthy lines of work?’ he asked.” The absurdities of his situation mount, he makes several faux pas that hurt his social standing and cause scandal in the military town, and of course, he’s eventually sentenced to fight a duel.
There’s a funny thing about these duel stories: who wins the duel doesn’t seem to matter at all, it’s all in the getting there, you think. After all, you know there will be a duel, it will probably be at the end, and you’ll probably spend most of the time and energy you give to the story on the build-up. But then it turns out to matter a great deal, because the whole final punch of the work is there, the thing that will crystallize what came before. There’s a lot good here: a real Russian military novel (everyone is always in the military but no one is ever at the military in other Russian lit), a powerful exploration of humanity and individuality (and their opposites), a motley cast of characters from many walks of imperial life and of many nationalities. And there’s a duel that will make you feel, at the end, a little like Romashov must.