Napoleon I, whose career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe, disliked duelling between the officers of his army. The great military emperor was not a swashbuckler, and had little respect for tradition.That's how Joseph Conrad begins his novella The Duel. I know there are those who dislike Conrad's prose--Ha Jin, for example, has written that it "tends to be purple at the expense of immediacy and penetrativeness"--but I find it almost always suited to his aims at a particular moment. What better way to begin a somewhat ridiculous, satirical account of a decade-long running duel than with the gentle irony of these sentences? The opening sentence alone, with its almost immediate interpolation of opinion, instantly reveals a narrative voice at some remove, both temporally and intellectually, from his subject, the perfect location for a Conradian narrative voice. (It's the position in which we find Marlowe at times, Heart of Darkness aside--though his emotional connection to the stories he tells prevents him from ever being as wry as this opening.)
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 particularly appropriate. It would be difficult to imagine for heroes of this legend two offices 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.
One of the pleasures of Conrad is that he feels almost inexhaustible: there are nearly twenty novels, a handful of memoirs, and countless short stories. A reader can pick up one or two each year, when the hot late summer breeze brings thoughts of distant islands, and not run out for a long time. Such a summer night is this one; I'm glad The Duel is here.