After watching Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977) recently, we were super keen to read the Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) novella that inspired it.
And here we are! The Duel (Point of Honor in America) is a short historical work first published in 1908 that’s sharp and biting.
The Duel—Conrad’s Swashbuckling Tale
Conrad is most famous for Heart of Darkness (1899), a novella that went on to inspire the award-winning film Apocalypse Now.
Back in 1908, the work first turned up as The Duel: A Military Tale in The Pall Mall Magazine in the UK. In the US it was called Point of Honor and ran in a periodical.
It was then collected into a Set of Six—a volume of Conrad’s then most recent short stories.
The Duel is about two swashbuckling officers in Napoleon’s Grand Army. Armand d’Hubert is the first. Gabriel Feraud the second.
As the novella starts, we join d’Hubert as he follows orders to place Feraud under house arrest for duelling.
He finds Feraud socialising in at a party and beckons the lieutenant over.
“Lieut. Feraud, splendid in his new dolman and the extremely polished boots of his calling, sat on a chair within a foot of the couch, one hand resting on his thigh, the other twirling his moustache to a point. At a significant glance from D’Hubert he rose without alacrity, and followed him into the recess of a window.
‘What is it you want with me?’ he asked, with astonishing indifference. Lieut. D’Hubert could not imagine that in the innocence of his heart and simplicity of his conscience Lieut. Feraud took a view of his duel in which neither remorse nor yet a rational apprehension of consequences had any place.”
Upon informing Feraud of this development, d’Hubert finds his fellow lieutenant incandescent with rage. He also immediately challenges d’Hubert to a duel.
They have their en garde moment, from which Feraud emerges as the clear loser. However, he refuses to accept this and makes d’Hubert his sworn archenemy for life.
As the pair continue with their lives, and as the Napoleonic wars rage on, they intermittently bump into each other.
Feraud, who’s made out as a rabid and most fervent Bonapartist, immediately demands another duel must take place. And d’Hubert goes along with it.
What Conrad does amongst this madness is to subtly spin out the reasons for such silly behaviour.
“No man succeeds in everything he undertakes. In that sense we are all failures. The great point is not to fail in ordering and sustaining the effort of our life. In this matter vanity is what leads us astray. It hurries us into situations from which we must come out damaged; whereas pride is our safeguard, by the reserve it imposes on the choice of our endeavour as much as by the virtue of its sustaining power.”
d’Hubert, who should be above the bizarre situation he finds himself in, allows pride to get the better of him.
He won’t let Feraud get away with it, losing to a lunatic would be in bad form.
And so the pair indulge in endless duels over many years. A total waste of time for all concerned, but the Code of Honour means they feel duty bound to go ahead with them.
Honour is an essential ingredient during times of war. And so we have two officers, who really should know better, going off on one.
Conrad’s exploration of such an absurdity is brilliant fun to read. Feraud essentially goads his victim and the duels continue to escalate.
The Duel is based on the legendary story of Pierre Dupont de l’Étang (1765-1840) and François Fournier-Sarlovèze (1773-1827).
The duo battled it out for 19 years and some 30 duels. They even drew up a contract determining the nature of their battles.
It may seem silly now, but us humans still hold bitter enmity and feuds over the most trivial of things.
These days duels usually take place over social media, rather than with rapiers. But the result is every bit as protracted and idiotic.
From us it’s a swashbuckling yes to Conrad’s tale. It’s a fine novella with excellent prose and a grand sense of absurdity.
And along with the black humour, there’s also an important message. Don’t let pointlessly vindictive issues affect your judgement.
So, yes, there’s the 1977 film adaptation as well. Ridley Scott’s directorial debut and a fine effort as well.
It starred Harvey Keitel as Feraud and Keith Carradine as d’Hubert.
As with the novella, The Duellists has a sense of farcical black humour on the go. And it convincingly manages to portray the futility of war and honour with terrific flare.
Keitel was on fine form, embodying Feraud’s sense of outrage with earnest, manic energy.
The Duellists is well worth a watch if you like your historical movies, as it’s still praised for its accuracy and attention to detail.