The title gives away the inevitable climax, but Alexander Kuprin’s concern in The Duel is to hook a common Russian melodramatic trope with his own spin, in this novel the absurdity of initial event and build-up, before the set-to itself. Military life, of which Kuprin got a taste, is skewered with existentialist mockery, realism’s magnifying glass, and a lacerating Romantic irony. Reminiscent of any Dostoyevsky femme fatale, Kuprin’s Shurochka, by theatrical and duplicitous direction, adds gasoline to the fire of Romashov’s ridiculous, impetuous pride.
Unfortunately, Kuprin’s powerful narration is compromised by translator Josh Billings’ repetitive word choices and rhythmic missteps, even though he captures a good deal of Kuprin’s lively characterizations and lyrical transitions. But by far the biggest problem in this English version of The Duel stems from Melville House Publishing’s rotten care in setting the text, which is riddled with typos (at least one per page in a 306 pp outlay). Kuprin deserved much better, and I note in mild horror that the same publisher/translator duo combined for a Pushkin collection.