Kuprin wrote this novel based on his own experiences in the army in the 1890s, about a sensitive man not cut out for the mechanistic and emotionally brutal army life. It is not a masterpiece and Kuprin himself said he wasn’t happy with the ending, but it has some wonderful moments. The main character, Romashov, is a captain granted command by dint of his higher upbringing, but he is a complete misfit. He is given to very Walter Mitty-ish fantasies about love, glory, and even death, and he alternates between seeing himself as the sole benevolent force in the other soldiers’ lives and looking down on them as robots who can’t feel anywhere nearly as deeply as he does.
So while Romashov is likable at points and recognizably more human than most of the characters, Kuprin insistently deflates him. His fantasies are unrealistic failures, and they remove him from being able to do actual good for himself or for others. Kuprin is harder on him than Thurber was on Walter Mitty. And Romashov is not an especially good man: he already has had one mistress, the wife of another officer. She now disgusts him, and she threatens him in order to keep him coming round. Meanwhile, he is infatuated with another officer’s wife, Alexandra, who of course proves herself to be even more craven than his old mistress. Romashov is oblivious to this, of course. (The women are not portrayed with any great insight or sympathy, but for the circumstances of the story, they suffice as dei ex machina.)
The novel alternates Romashov’s endless mental circles with extremely dreary portraits of army life, which render the book a bit more plainspoken than the incisive social satire of Kuprin’s more talented contemporary Sologub. But Kuprin writes with great charm, and Romashov is painfully believable. Kuprin’s most brilliant move is to hold off on mentioning any duel whatsoever for most of the novel, knowing that the situation he paints leaves no grounds for any possible duel to be reasonable, noble, or satisfying. Having only the title as a foreshadowing gives a creaky, wincing suspense that makes passages like this even more nerve-wracking:
He was struck by the blindingly clear realization of his individuality.
“I–it’s here inside,” he thought. “All the rest is a mere construction, it’s not I. This room, the street, the trees, the colonel, Lieutenant Andrusevich, the army, the flag, the soldiers–all that is not I.” Romashov looked down at his hands with surprise, raising them close to his eyes as though he were seeing them for the first time. “Is this I? And is the one who is thinking I? And the one who wants to go out? And now I am walking up and down, and now I have stopped. … Strange, does everybody have this kind of I? Maybe not. If I stand in front of one hundred soldiers and shout ‘Eyes right!’, none undred men, all of whom have their own I and who see in me something outside of it, will all, nevertheless, turn their heads to the right at the same time. But I, I cannot tell them apart….
Yes, but if I die there’ll be no more country, invaders, honor. They only live as long as I do. But think of it the other way around–if country, discipline, the honor of the uniform disappear my I could still remain. Therefore I is more important than all these notions about duty, honor, love? And so, if my I, no, not only my I, but the millions of I’s which make up the army, the whole population of the world, suddenly decided ‘no more,’ wars would become unthinkable.
Kuprin maintains a deadpan stance chronicling Romashov’s excursions into this sort of thought, whether he’s abstractly philosophizing like this or imagining a hero’s funeral for himself after he commits suicide and everyone blames themselves for not treating him better. Romashov embraces lesser and greater forms of romanticism as the novel goes on, turning to Love, God, Brotherhood, and other ideals in quick succession, in search of any meaning for himself. It is very convincing. I imagine Kuprin himself had many of these thoughts in his youth, perhaps to a lesser extent, but at the time of writing, he had the right distance from them to portray them artistically, honestly, and ironically. It’s touching, but it’s also pathetic.
Romashov is a young man; it’s hard to hate him, hard even to pity him. But his delusions, in tandem with the awful realities of army life, prove to be utterly toxic.