[Originally published in Argus (Seattle), 1978]
“The Duel” is one of the most mysterious stories Joseph Conrad ever wrote. Ostensibly based in fact, it recounts the bizarre involvement of two career officers in Napoleon’s Grande Armée who, in the first year of the Little Corporal’s reign, become adversaries in a private quarrel no other man—and perhaps only one of the participants—understands.
Feraud, low-born, impetuous, wholly committed to his emperor and a relentless code of honor, consecrates his every energy to defending both. In battle a tiger, off the field of armies he moves from one duel, one test of strength, to another. D’Hubert is a career officer by aristocratic avocation; he meets both advancement and setback with an air of ironical amusement, an aesthete’s sense of form.
Their initial combat is forced upon D’Hubert. Almost accidentally, he emerges from it the victor, and sends his personal surgeon to tend Feraud’s wounds. Feraud demands a rematch, wounds D’Hubert this time, but refuses to call it even. To his annoyance and eventually his horror, D’Hubert realizes that the man intends to pursue the matter to the death.
And so it goes each time fate throws them together—for nearly two decades: from the cosmopolitan coziness of German billets to the icy retreat from Moscow; through the collapse of two Napoleonic regimes, to the dawn of what ought to be D’Hubert’s easy middle age as a country gentleman and doting husband.
This enigmatic tale, missing from most contemporary anthologies of Conrad’s work, provides the basis of an extraordinary film, The Duellists, written by Gerald Vaughn-Hughes and directed by Ridley Scott. It created a sensation at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival exactly one full year ago, but its American distributor has only now got round to releasing it. Indeed, they haven’t so much released it as absentmindedly permitted it to wander off on its own.