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Top 10 books about duels | Books

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Among the hoary lessons a debut writer must learn is that of Chekhov’s gun, the notion that anything introduced to a story must be there for a reason. “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall,” Chekhov wrote, “then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” It is good advice, serving the demands of brevity and precision, avoiding the deadly burden of inconsequential intrusion into the sparse landscape of narrative.

My novel, A Melancholy Event, features not one but two guns, hanging in a pair. These are guns with a purpose, for they are duelling pistols, and thereby – with apologies to Shakespeare and Jeffrey Archer – hangs a tale.

More than a niche of its own, the literary duel is almost its own canon, bewitching writers of a certain romantic, invariably male, predisposition. As a catalyst for plot it is hard to think of anything more dynamic or indeed convenient, a device laden with symbolism, a gateway to the big themes of honour, revenge, conflict, death, and a handy way of wrapping things up if they seem to be going on too long. Add in a dose of authorial practice – Pushkin and Proust both fought in duels – and you have a grand literary tradition. For my novel, the true story of a duel is the catalyst for what TS Eliot termed a “shocker”, a slice of contemporary macabre. En garde!

1. The Duel by Anton Chekhov
A story of two lovers who have fallen out of love and two men whose friendship cannot survive their opposing worldviews. Chekhov takes his regular ingredients (the bourgeoisie, decay and ennui), places them in the sweltering crucible of a seaside resort in the Caucasus, and throws in a duel. For Chekhov, the duel is a catalyst for change and reconciliation, for his characters to learn something about themselves and the world around them. In common with many duelling stories, there is an air of comic ineptitude to the proceedings; unlike most, nobody dies from a gunshot wound.

2. The Duel by Giacomo Casanova
A feast of riotous detail, the clue to this exceptional piece of writing by the 18th-century libertine lies in the subtitle: “An episode from the life of GC, a Venetian.” Written before History of My Life, the autobiography that created the myth and defined Casanova’s legacy, The Duel features all the tropes: a young adventurer fleeing injustice, romantic misunderstanding, an affronted army officer and a window on to the life of a young man on the make in a European court.

3. The Flower of Battle by Fiore dei Liberi
A deliriously absurd and beautiful treatise on the art of combat, Flower of Battle dates from the early 1400s. One of a handful of works by Dei Liberi, an Italian nobleman and “the greatest fencing master of the late 1300s”, there are four surviving copies of this illustrated manuscript. As How To manuals go, it takes some beating, starting with simple hand-to-hand combat and progressing through the various stages of weaponry: daggers, swords, sticks, poleaxes and spears. But rather than the intricacy of the combat, it is the simplicity of the illustration that astounds, offering a glorious insight into the minds and mores of a distant world.

4. A Coward by Guy de Maupassant
If honour and bravery are considered essential parts of the duellist’s armoury, then their flip side is shame and cowardice, illustrated most succinctly in De Maupassant’s short story. In less than 10 pages, the French writer creates a portrait of uncertainty and regret, in which bravado is reduced to panic by the possibility of a loss of honour.

5. The Duel by Joseph Conrad
One of the more unlikely tales from the history of duelling, brought to life in Conrad’s swashbuckler short story, originally published in the collection A Set of Six. Two soldiers in Napoleon’s army discover a taste for duelling with each other, their combat spanning decades and an array of weapons: swords, sabres on horseback and finally pistols. Conrad, with just a short newspaper report as source material, places his protagonists at the centre of a Europe in upheaval as Napoleon’s army triumphs and is ultimately vanquished. The enduring hostility between the two officers serves as an apt metaphor for the absurdity of war. Ridley Scott filmed the story for his first feature, The Duellists, with the tag line: “Fencing is a science. Loving is a passion. Duelling is an obsession.”

Engraving of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr preparing to duel, 1804.
Engraving of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr preparing to duel, 1804. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

6. Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Duelling from Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk by Barbara Holland
An entertaining breeze through a thousand years of duelling by the sparky and sardonic Holland, taking in German mensur clubs, Alexander Hamilton’s death in a duel at the hands of Aaron Burr – as seen in the musical – and the 2002 effort by the Iraqi vice president to avoid the looming conflict by challenging Bush and Cheney to duels. Holland takes duelling to be a symptom of male insecurity. “Men spring from the womb needing to prove that they’re men,” she concludes, before suggesting that a mechanism for properly organised personal vengeance might defuse some of the tensions in the world. “Perhaps,” she writes, “a return to the duel would serve a social purpose.”

7. The Duel by Aleksandr Kuprin
Another steamy, sultry affair suffused with ennui, laced with ambition and smothered with, well, the tedium of garrison life. Our hero is a young officer, smarter than most, who cannot abide the rituals and rigours of military life. Relief comes in the form of the even smarter wife of a senior officer. Kuprin’s story was published in 1905, during the dying throes of the Tsarist empire and was seen at the time to be an allegory for a rotten system. A literary sensation in its day, the novel drew on Kuprin’s own experiences, stationed in a remote army garrison. “With my novel,” he wrote, “I shall challenge the Russian army to a duel.”

‘The best-known author-practitioner’ ... duellist Alexander Pushkin, 1820.
‘The best-known author-practitioner’ … duellist Alexander Pushkin, 1820. Photograph: Alamy

8. The Shot by Alexander Pushkin
Pushkin was probably the best-known author-practitioner, and this short story was informed by his own experiences as a duellist. Part of The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, The Shot even sees one of the duellists repeat the author’s stunt of eating cherries while his opponent takes aim. Pushkin later died in the most infamous of literary duels, at the hands of the French soldier Georges D’Anthès.

9. The Duel by Heinrich von Kleist
A violent tale, even by the standards of duelling literature. Kleist sets his novella in the 14th century, when duelling was seen as a trial by battle in which the “Judgment of God” would prevail. A murder, a wronged noblewoman, shame, calumny, castles, a melodramatic ending, Kleist’s story pulls together all the key elements of the genre.

10. The Duel: A History of Duelling by Robert Baldick
Published in 1965, Baldick’s straightforward history of the duel remains the key text, covering the historical development of duelling, from the start of judicial duels in the sixth century to the American west. He runs through the various iterations of the rules and regional variations. It also contains a section on unusual duels, including duel by billiard ball and poison pill, and the story of the naked duellist, Humphrey Howarth, the MP for Evesham who surprised witnesses by shedding his clothing for a duel in Brighton in 1806. Baldick’s book is most notable, however, for the illustrations, a wealth of cartoons, line drawings and paintings, topped by a set of 18th-century engravings showing duelling positions.

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