August 25, 2011

Illuminations: Pantsless Paragons


"Knights Dueling" by Eugene Delacroix.

With the release of The Duel x5, Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

We’re officially on the final book to profile: The Duel by Alexander Kuprin. Kuprin’s wonderfully written (and wonderfully translated I should add) story is about a garrison of soldiers stationed at the edges of the Russian Empire, where the purpose of their deployment is becoming less apparent by the day. Boredom and the backdrop of military life lead the soldiers to a lifestyle filled with gambling and drinking, which in turn opens the opportunity quarreling. The quarreling in turn leads to a duel. The protagonist of the novel realizes that his duel will be meaningless, and yet a desperate need to belong holds him fast to the dire pact made with his opponent.

The Illuminations for the Kuprin involve two things. One is a look at the somewhat lesser known Kuprin’s place in literature, with comparative readings from Rudyard Kipling. Vladimir Nabokov once remarked that Kuprin was the Russian Kipling, an observation that is very accurate except that Kuprin was a more polished writer, though less interested in vernaculars and innovation as Kipling. There is also an entertaining collection of “The Russian Duel’s Greatest Hits” with selections from the most famous dueling scenes in Russian literature.

At the back of the Illuminations is the other aspect, in the section called “The Duelist’s Supplement.” It is here that we have created a wonderful anthology of “The Other Duel: Stories and Poetry About Dueling”, many of which are literally titled, “The Duel.” Puskin, Maupassant, Hardy, O. Henry and others all wrote stories or selections of novels which they titled “The Duel.” Not everything in the anthology bears the same title as the novel, as is the case with today’s selection comes from the Valencian epic, Tirant Lo Blanc by Joanot Mortorell & Marti Joan de Galba. Composed over the 15th century and published in 1490, the Tirant Lo Blanc is one of the most influential examples of medieval romance literature. This is especially true considering it was a chief influence to Miguel de Cervantes, and mentioned as the finest example of knightly literature in Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote. Joanot Mortorell (1413-1468) was a Valencian knight who supposedly left the chivalric epic unfinished at the time of his death and his friend Marti Joan de  Galba (died 1490) completed the work, mostly filling in place names and character backgrounds.

In the selection the indomitable Tirant nearly meets his match. Since it is quoted at length in the Illuminations, I have split up the reading into two sections for today’s post.

First we have two knights of repute, one of them Tirant, making preparations for a duel they will fight against one another. The accoutrements, or, ahem, lack thereof, are clearly the focus here.

“It is my decision that the battle will be on foot, in shirts made with cloth from France, both of us having paper shields, and on our heads a garland of flowers, with no other clothing at all on our bodies. The offensive weapons for both of us will be Genoese knives with a cutting edge on both sides, and very sharp points. In this way I will combat him to the death.”

For the record, paper shields are just that: made of paper. And French linen was a very rough material and would prove abrasive to two knights in combat. Perhaps the cool air on their, well, never mind.

The second portion comes from the end of the selection, where the fight is finally coming to bloody, panst-less resolution.

“They went at each other in a fury. The French knight carried his knife high, in front of his head, and Tirant held his just above his chest. When they were close to each other, the French knight struck hard at the middle of Tirant’s head. Tirant parried and struck back, and he dealt him a blow on top of his ear that almost dug into his brain. The other man struck Tirant in the middle of his thigh, and the wound gaped about a handsbreadth. He quickly stabbed him again in his left arm, and the knife sunk in as far as the bone. They both fought so hard that it was dreadful. And they were so close to each other that with every swing they took they drew blood. It was a pitiful sight for anyone who saw the wounds of the two men: their shirts had become completely red from all the blood they lost. Jerusalem repeatedly asked the judge if he wanted him to make them stop fighting, and the cruel judge answered:

“‘Let them come to the end of their cruel days, since that’s what they want.’

“‘I am convinced that at that very moment both of them would rather have had peace than war. But since they were very brave and very courageous knights they fought ceaselessly, without mercy. Finally Tirant saw that he was near death because of all the blood he was losing, so he drew as close to the other man as he could, and stabbed him in the left breast, straight into his heart. The other man dealt him a mighty slash to his head, causing him to lose the sight of his eyes, and he fell to the ground before the other one. And if the Frenchman had been able to hold himself up when Tirant fell, he could easily have killed him if he had wanted. But he did not have enough strength, and he immediately fell dead on the ground.

“When the judge saw that the knights were lying there so still, he got down from the cenotaph, and going up to them, he said:

“‘Upon my word, you two have behaved like good and very honorable knights: no one could find fault with you.”

I too, can find no exception.