Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Review: The Duel - A Military Tale by Joseph Conrad

The Duel - A Military Tale is the novella behind the esteemed film adaptation, The Duellists by Ridley Scott, which starred Keith Carradine as Armand d'Hubert and Harvey Keitel as Gabriel Féraud. The tale explores the concepts of honour and pride through the acts and lives of two men, d'Hubert and Féraud, who have very different ideas of what they mean. I reviewed the film in the previous post and now it is time to take a look at the novella.

The story begins in 1801 with lieutenant d'Hubert walking the streets of Strasbourg, searching for a fellow lieutenant called Féraud who is wanted by their division general. He interrupts Féraud while he is being entertained by a popular lady at her party and Féraud takes the interruption and the consequent order to stay at his home personally, thinking that his honour has been injured. They end up fighting their first duel almost immediately, but Féraud is not satisfied by the encounter. Thus begins a tale that spans the next 16 years and follows the campaigns of Bonaparte where Féraud seeks out and challenges d'Hubert to various duels whenever a momentary peace allows him to do so.

Joseph Conrad's style of telling a story makes the characters feel a bit distant for most of the length of the novella. Though the tale is told from d'Hubert's perspective, his personality and thoughts of honour and pride are really only explored towards the end of the tale. Féraud remains even more distant, but the reader comes to understand his character also very late into the story. Partially because of this the story did not truly engage me until I had read almost all of it. It may be that the author wanted to keep the reader guessing, but I cannot but wonder if the natures of these two men could have been explored more fully from the very beginning, giving the readers a fuller perspective to the events that take place.

"A mere fighter all his life, a cavalry man, a sabreur, he conceived war with the utmost simplicity, as, in the main, a massed lot of personal contests, a sort of gregarious duelling. And here he had in hand a war of his own. He revived. The shadow of peace passed away from him like the shadow of death." - Joseph Conrad

But while Conrad did not reveal the tastiest aspects of the characters until the end, he does describe the fear and other emotions that run through d'Hubert's mind before the duels very well. And his description of the Russian campaign drew a truly horrible image of what it must have been like for Bonaparte's troops to march to war in that hostile, cold land, where those who fall behind end up as dark patches of frozen bodies in the white landscape.

I ended up enjoying this novella very much despite the somewhat slow beginning. The ending (not quite the same as in the film adaptation) was surprisingly touching and went deeper into the characters than the film did. Very much worth a read even if you've seen the film.