Originally published in a volume entitled A Set of Six Conrad prefaces The Duel with his inspiration for the story:
Its pedigree is extremely simple. It springs from a ten-line paragraph in a small provincial paper published in the South of France. That paragraph, occasioned by a duel with a fatal ending between two well-known Parisian personalities, referred for some reason or other to the “well-known fact of two officers in Napoleon’s Grand Army having fought a series of duels in the midst of great wars and on some futile pretext. The pretext was never disclosed. I had therefore to invent it; and I think that, given the character of the two officers which I had to invent too, I have made it sufficiently convincing by the mere force of its absurdity.
In the preface Conrad adds that his intention was to capture the “Spirit of the Epoch.” This is especially evident in Conrad’s depiction of the French flight from the failed invasion of Russia. His two protagonists, fighting for the first time side-by-side, are part of the “so-called sacred battalion-a battalion recruited from the officers of all arms who no had no longer any troops to lead.” The absurdity and horror of the epoch is powerfully rendered.
From the French peak at the Battle of Austerlitz to the destruction of France as a major power, Conrad’s two characters meet repeatedly to defend their honour. Until reading The Duel I was unaware that Conrad’s story is the basis for Ridley Scott’s wonderful film The Duellists, a film I must have watched on half a dozen separate occasions. Scott’s film joins the small list of titles that are every bit as good as the book. So good that I was unable to remove Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel’s portrayal of D’Hubert and Feraud from my reading of The Duel. Keitel’s evocation of the brooding Feraud is outstanding.
How could this story fail to enchant? Conrad writing of two swashbuckling Hussars with the Napoleonic Wars as its milieu. Simply wonderful.