The Duel by Giacomo Casanova

Last summer, Melville House went to town and published five different novellas all with the same title: The Duel. Not only did they all share a title, they are all, also, about…duels. The comparisons and contrasts practically draw themselves, with that kind of invitation.

I read four of those novellas a year ago now, and the fifth just recently—the one by Giacomo Casanova. It’s the autobiographical story of a Venetian itinerant, going around Europe from state to state, seeking his fortune and befriending powerful people. He stops off in Poland, where he will eventually meet and challenge his duellist, over a very minor affair involving a ballerina. A minor affair—I meant to say, honor, of course!

The most interesting part of Casanova’s story is his examination of why the winner wins the duel. The Venetion, beforehand, “decided to have an excellent meal,” and “[g]iven that a healthy body is derived from good food, there can be no doubt that a tranquil spirit comes from the same source.” Then, time to fight:

The Venetian, who had already raised his pistol but kept its muzzle pointing at the ground, turned sideways, as if they were about to fight with swords, but without extending his arm. In this posture, he doffed his hat and rested it against his left knee. Then he said to the Podstoli: “Your Excellency will do me the honor of firing first.” Branicki replied: “En garde!”

In a single instant the Venetian put on his hat, returned his left hand to his left side, extended the pistol with his right hand, and when he saw that it was aimed straight at the Podstoli’s body, he fired. At that same moment his opponent fired as well, so that the observers heard only a single shot. If Branicki had not wasted so much time, he certainly would have fired first, and possibly killed the Venetian. But he squandered at least three seconds in calling out “En garde!” (which was not his repsonsibility to begin with), drawing himself up to his full height, and extending his pistol so that his head was no longer visible. Due to the Venetian’s earlier comment, he had assumed that his adversary would be aiming at his head. But in fact the comment had been a mere figure of speech, because the duelist who aims at his opponent’s head rather than his chest operates at a great disadvantage.

The Venetian, by contrast, didn’t waste any time and didn’t “consider the slight advantage he would have gained by drawing himself up and narrowing the target.” Instead he stayed still and tranquil—as his meal provided for—and shot true. By getting off an early shot, he helped ensure his own safety, getting away with a flesh wound. But the Podstoli, his opponent, similarly escaped death because of his own preparations for the duel, which were the opposite of the Venetian’s. The Podstoli did not eat, and he did draw himself up, so when the Venetian shot him in the stomach, his lack of “swollen intestines” meant they weren’t pierced. Now, physiology aside, “[d]ivine providence is visible in every chance event, and only an ingrate would fail to reflect upon it, or refuse to recognize it.”

Divine or not, Casanova, like the other writers of other The Duels, recognizes that the main interest in writing about such encounters is in their chance element. Two people, each armed, following a specified set of rules, and yet with so many variables! Chance is the thing in a duel—it leads to the duel, it determines the outcome, and in the case of one of the other novellas, that same chance is then used to determine something else entirely. I’m starting to see these duel stories almost as a genre: nearly all fiction, of course, is based on chance incidents—how could you have a plot without them—but here we refine that down to the chances surrounding a very particular event, which acts as a sort of crucible for all the little chances to become a big one, the ultimate outcome of the duel.