Magazine article The Spectator

'Touché: The Duel in Literature', by John Leigh - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Touché: The Duel in Literature', by John Leigh - Review

Article excerpt

Touché: The Duel in Literature John Leigh

Harvard, pp.352, £20, ISBN: 9780674504387

Earlier this century I was a guest at a fine dinner, held in a citadel of aristocratic Catholicism, for youngish members of German student duelling societies. My hosts were splendidly courteous, some of them held deadly straight rapiers or lethal curved blades, there were brightly coloured and golden braided costumes that made King Rudolf of Ruritania's coronation robes seem dowdy, and we sung a rousing anthem about Prince Eugene of Savoy smiting the fearful Turk at the battle of Zenta in 1697. It was a high-testosterone evening. A few of my young hosts had duelling scars, discreetly placed so as to be imperceptible when they were in office suits, for some of them worked in Canary Wharf or the City as bankers, lawyers and accountants.

It is hard to transfer the excitement of such spectacles to the printed page. John Leigh is a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, an authority on Voltaire and the editor of the plays of Beaumarchais. His multilingual history of European duelling draws on his reading of novelists, poets and dramatists from Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Russia. There is also a diverting section on grotesque duels in Mark Twain and a brisk denial that the Wild West gunfights beloved by Hollywood film-makers can be ranked as duels: most of Wyatt Earp's 150 victims were shot in the back. Touché is keen, clever, thorough, crisply humorous and impressive in its sources; but as its subtitle warns, it is a work of literary rather than social history. Readers in search of manly brio or real-life bloodshed will be disappointed. The book is a donnish paperchase, though an amiable one.

Duels, like parties, are handy episodes for writers, because they have premonitory openings, dramatic middles and conclusive finishes. Leigh characterises four types of duellist: the dutiful (gentlemen drawn by duty, but against their peaceable inclinations, into combat that they fear they will lose); the inveterate (quarrelsome men, who love strife, violence and flouting the law); the vain (showy libertines who want to cut fine figures); and the quixotic

(chivalrous men seeking justice).

Louis XIV led the way in 17th-century Europe in trying to suppress duelling. By the late 18th century Malta was singular in punishing men who declined to fight rather than those who did. In the 1760s a man who had evaded a challenge after a squabble over billiards was sentenced to life imprisonment, beginning with five years' confinement in a Maltese dungeon without any light. …

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