John Leigh’s book is a scholarly but lively look at an old tradition. (Courtesy of Harvard University/Courtesy of Harvard University)
The Duel in Literature

By John Leigh

Harvard, Univ. 334 pp. $35

A duel is inherently stupid, being largely a form of ritualized murder or suicide. Perhaps chance will favor one opponent over another, a foot might slip, a gun misfire. But, in general, the better swordsman or more practiced shot will triumph every time. Honor may be served, but justice only coincidentally, and one man will almost certainly be dead, usually for no good reason at all.

As John Leigh reminds us in “Touché,” this has been one of the arguments against dueling at least since Louis XIV outlawed the practice. And yet the romance of swords at sunset or pistols at dawn remains as powerful as ever. There lingers, even in our mercantile age, an admiration for the aristocratic ethos, the punctilio, of the duel. After all, unlike feuds or plain murder for revenge, a traditional affair of honor always involves social equals — there is no glory in killing a peasant and considerable shame in being killed by one.

As we know from countless historical novels, movies and costume dramas, the steps toward a duel are highly codified, starting with a real or imagined insult to a lady or one’s personal honor. After the insufferable affront comes the challenge, often accompanied by the “soufflet” or slap, the icy presentation of one’s card, and a demand for satisfaction, soon followed by the choice of weapons and the naming of seconds. Come the evening before the actual “rencontre,” at least one of the duelists, either racked with fearful misgivings or maintaining a languid sang-froid, will have settled his affairs so that he can spend what may be his last hours composing a letter to a beloved wife or mistress.

When the two adversaries finally meet on the field of honor, they will be elegantly and spotlessly dressed, their weapons of the highest quality and their comportment toward each other one of restrained and delicate courtesy. A witty sally or quip is never amiss as a demonstration of one’s style and self-command. After the fatal thrust or shot, the “winner” will cast aside his weapon and hurriedly bend to hear the dying man’s final words, sometimes of forgiveness. Duelists, as Leigh observes, “tend to face each other as opponents, not enemies.”

As the subtitle of “Touché” indicates, Leigh’s main interest lies in the presentation of the duel in plays, novels and short stories, beginning with Corneille’s near-tragedy “Le Cid” and ending with “The Radetzky March,” Joseph Roth’s novel about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In between he discusses such key 18th-century texts as Richardson’s “Clarissa,” Laclos’s “Les Liaisons dangereuses” and Smollett’s “Roderick Random,” as well as such 19th-century works as Pushkin’s narrative poem “Eugene Onegin” and Dumas’s classic swashbuckler “The Three Musketeers.” Leigh also devotes some outstanding pages to Casanova’s account of his duel with a Polish nobleman, to comic duels in Dickens and to two of Maupassant’s short stories, in one of which a man, out of fear of what a future encounter will bring, prefers to commit suicide. There is even a brief consideration of the American cowboy version of the duel, the showdown at high noon on a dusty street.

While Leigh probes and theorizes to a fare-thee-well, he does convey a good deal of pure information. Did you know that “stickler” was another name for the second, whose chief responsibility, after all, was to make sure that all the proprieties were strictly observed? Leigh tells us that Malta, alone among European countries, not only permitted dueling but also specified that a refusal to fight could lead to imprisonment. During the early 19th century, the duel fell out of literary favor because it lacked intensity and spontaneity: Romantic poets and novelists preferred honest, impassioned murder to coolly calculated encounters. Later 19th-century literature, however, reveals an “embourgeoisment” of the duel, as it became a means of gaining social status and cachet. More modern writers have often imbued the face-to-face encounter with a psychological or Freudian twist, viewing it as a combat “with a doppelganger or with oneself.” One part of the self slays another. Leigh — almost parenthetically — then adduces a superb general pronouncement, applicable to all of us: “In choosing our path through life, and in order to become ourselves, we each need to kill off potential versions of ourselves, the persons we might have become.” That’s worth copying into a commonplace book.

Besides fiction and drama, Leigh also analyzes some representations of duels in art, notably Jean-Léon Gérôme’s haunting 1857 painting “The Duel After the Masquerade.” On a snow-covered field, a dying clown — more precisely, an 18th-century Pierrot dressed all in white silk — is being lowered to the ground by his seconds, a sword still clutched in his hand, while his killer is led away toward the misty trees in the background. Here the theatricality, absurdity and brutal reality of the duel all come together in one unforgettable image. Do look it up online.

Throughout “Touché,” Leigh shows himself a master of the neatly turned observation. “Charm,” he writes, “is a sort of refined insincerity.” Though dueling might look harebrained and utterly irrational, “gentlemen were not particularly interested in the promptings and pleas of reason. That is an essentially bourgeois scruple, rather like spelling correctly or counting one’s money.” In fact, a duelist “fights not for gain from his adversary but to declare who or what he is.” Leigh can also be witty: “ ‘The Three Musketeers’ is one of those familiar novels that we think we might somehow have read, although without quite remembering when.” He later speaks of D’Artagnan’s successive sword fights with Athos, Porthos and Aramis at, respectively, noon, 1 and 2 p.m. on the same day as “a form of speed dueling.”

Sometimes, though, Leigh’s thickly textured prose can grow almost, but not quite, impenetrable in that casual, inbred way so common to academics. At one point, this Cambridge University professor speaks of duels between foreign nationals as “an informal way of winning back national pride. A nation might be appraised by the way its men conducted their duels. This approach, more common in the later nineteenth century, places duels at the service of an anthropological inquiry, reducing them to an epiphenomenon of wider mentalities.”

Fortunately, such academese is relatively rare, though no one should mistake “Touché” for anything but a scholarly book. It is, though, an excellent one. Still, I was sorry that Leigh left out my favorite duel in modern literature: The encounter between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty on the paths high above the Reichenbach Falls. You will remember that Dr. Watson discovers a note on a boulder, held down by Holmes’s cigarette case: “My dear Watson, I write these few lines through the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us. . . .” Here, in the understated, euphemistic language of the duel, the world’s greatest detective and the Napoleon of Crime arrange to meet for the last time.

 reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.