Don Juan

His Own Version: A Novel

Peter Handke

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 112 pp., $22

Peter Handke isn't interested in damnation. He said as much in an interview published in the Drama Review in 1970: "Morality is the least of my concerns. . . . To me, morality in a society that -- however moral its pose -- is hierarchically organized is simply a lie, an alibi for the inequalities that exist in society." And so "Don Juan: His Own Version" is a story without a moral. It is episodic and uncapped, a text that neither delivers nor allows judgment.

The legend of Don Juan may be one of the most retold stories in literature. More than 1,500 versions of the tale have been written since the 17th century. The earliest known version was published in 1626, called "El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra" by the priest Tirso de Molina. As you might expect from a priest, Tirso's Don Juan was a villainous scoundrel sent to hell for his sins. Subsequent stories tend to damn Don Juan variously -- and to damn the women who succumbed to or partook in the seduction too. But Handke is defiant of these versions, and his Don Juan isn't corralled into any tidy deliverance.

The moral ambiguity of this retelling is evident from the very start. Don Juan comes hurtling over a fence into an innkeeper's garden in the first pages. He is fleeing a pair of pursuers, a couple on a motorbike, who have just caught him peeping at them as they made love in the forest. He is running so fast and hard that his panting can be heard by the lonely innkeeper minutes before his jump over the wall. The innkeeper and new arrival listen to the roar of the motorbike as it approaches and then watch as the couple gives a friendly wave on their way past. Were they in pursuit -- or did they just happen to be going that way?

Handke's Don Juan is unmistakably that same lover found in the other tales. But somewhere near the middle of the book, Handke delivers a clear summation of his character: "Don Juan was no seducer. He had never seduced a woman. . . . And conversely, Don Juan had never been seduced by a woman. . . . Don Juan's power emanated from his eyes . . . with his gaze -- and not with his looks, which were rather inconspicuous -- he unleashed the woman's desire. It was a gaze that took in more than her alone, and different things, a gaze that extended past her and let her be, and thus she knew it was directed at her, and appreciated her; an active gaze. . . . From Don Juan's eye on her and additionally on the space around her, this woman came to a realization of how alone she had been until then, and recognized that this moment would promptly put an end to that. . . . Becoming aware of loneliness -- the energy, pure and unconditional, of desire."

This new Don Juan won't be made a scapegoat for attitudes toward women and their chastity. In the same interview mentioned earlier, Handke also explains that the "only thing that preoccupies me as a writer . . . is nausea at stupid speechification and the resulting brutalization of people. Of course it would disgust me to tell anyone how to live."

Handke's novel catches Don Juan in a respite. Having leapt over the wall, he stops his endless wandering for exactly a week, during which time he regales the innkeeper with a chronicle of the preceding week. He describes how he has trysted his way from the Caucasus to Norway via Africa. But, as the novel's title suggests, Don Juan is not the narrator of this book. The innkeeper, Don Juan's obedient listener, brings the story to the reader. He is kept narratively chaste by Don Juan, who forbids the asking of questions while he speaks. And the innkeeper is faithful, saying on the last page: "[F]rom what my Don Juan told me about himself I learned the following: those were all false Don Juans -- including Moliere's, including Mozart's."

Indeed, Handke's Don Juan story may just ruin the reading experience of other versions (which seem dreadfully didactic in comparison). Indeed, one suspects that this was Handke's intention -- to show them up with his clean, broad narration, which refuses to herd a reader toward conclusion. Handke's text is anti-reductive. His language is at once specific and ambiguous. Don Juan isn't treated here to the vagaries of typology; his nature is palpable but unfixed. As the innkeeper says, at the very end: "The rest of the story cannot be told, either by Don Juan or by me, or by anyone else. Don Juan's story can have no end, and that, on my word, is the definitive and true story of Don Juan."

Randall is a critic and the translator of "A Hero of Our Time" by Mikhail Lermontov and Yevgeny Zamyatin's




His Own Version

By Peter Handke

Translated by Krishna Winston

101 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $22


Excerpt: ‘Don Juan’(

Pretty soon the Einfall develops into a full-fledged idea. But what is it? The book’s epigraph quotes Da Ponte andMozart’s Don Giovanni: “Chi son’ io tu non saprai” — “Who I am, you shall not discover.” Perhaps, but I will hazard a guess: Handke’s Don Juan personifies the idea of the fulfilled moment, where time and eternity intersect.

Literally translated, Handke’s title is “Don Juan (Told by Himself).” It suggests that Don Juan is his own narration, that he exists purely by virtue of telling himself into being. This he does in a ruminant, somewhat old-fashioned manner and in a tone that is conspicuously chaste, avoiding any hint of “piquant details” when he talks about women. Krishna Winston’s translation faithfully conveys what is said, but she tends to simplify and generalize how it is said. This is not a trivial subtraction. Like God and the Devil, Don Juan is in the details.

For some reason Don Juan also refers to himself in the third person rather than the first. So the innkeeper, who relates this account, informs us. Who, then, is the narrator? The book teems with similar ambiguities.

Caveat emptor: this book is not about sex. The Don Juan of legend, opera and literature was a ruthless libertine whose servant kept count of his thousands of conquests. Now the true Don Juan has come to tell us that Mozart,Molière and all his other interpreters had it wrong. He is an orphaned soul — “orphaned,” we learn, by the death of a child, or, alternatively, a lover — and sorrow, not desire, is his motive force. He believes in his sorrow and wants to confer it upon the world.

He is not a seducer. His power over women is of a different order, and he does not revel in it; on the contrary, it makes him shy. His look (not his looks, which are unremarkable) reveals to them the “outrage” of their solitude and sets free their desire, which he then feels duty-bound to fulfill.

Don Juan suffers from a counting compulsion, but he does not count women. Numbers fill him with dread. They transform the living moment into seconds, robbing him of the spontaneous, organic time of the senses. “Womantime” and “counting time” are the antipodes of his existence. Time, then, not sex, is his obsession. His chief endeavor is to be “master of his own time.”

If he were a man, one might speak of a neurosis. But he is not a man, he is a poetic idea, and he knows how to cure his own ill. The cure is to walk backward, always looking in the direction from which he came; to love seven women as if they were one, naming none of them, leaving them all “indescribably beautiful”; to immerse himself for five pages in the kinesthetic adventure of listening to a nightlong sandstorm; to attend to his servant, a vulnerable Sancho Panza-like lout with a preference for ugly women; to paint a landscape with the intimacy of a portrait and then tell us that every other place he visits looks pretty much the same; to collapse space and time by sending a slow drift of poplar-seed fluff through all corners of Europe on each day of a weeklong journey.

Surely his “own time” is narrative time, the time of self-telling. He takes his time with it, going nowhere slowly. Peculiar things happen along the way. A muskrat comes to sniff at his toes; a giant crow drops a passion fruit within his reach; armies of butterflies salute him as if with miniature pennants and banners. Perhaps he is related to Pan, the nymph-loving god of shepherds. But he also wears the insignia of another god, ministering to the weak and defenseless, multiplying wine at a wedding feast, conjuring food to supplement his host’s cooking. In all seriousness and with playful irony, Handke presents a gospel of Don Juan, benign and amoral avatar of the senses.

It doesn’t quite work. Handke’s anti-Don Juan is a creature of the mind, too disembodied to play the part of a lover. His women are phantasms; he himself is a figure in his own dream. All this is deliberate irony, of course, but here irony feeds on what is, after all, an erotic tale. It is not realism I miss but a more fully realized fiction. For all its engaging and delicate ruminations, and despite its bold, humorous claim to be “the definitive and true story of Don Juan,” the book left me wanting to hear again Mozart’s treatment of the same theme. That music has everything Handke’s prose lacks: brio, verve, declarative intensity, a vast range of emotion and, last but not least, brilliant, joyful virility.





Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Don Juan catapults over a garden wall and into the life of an anonymous narrator in this short, frustrating novel. Over the course of a week, the narrator, a lonely French innkeeper, listens to Don Juan relate the adventures that culminate with his arrival at the inn. In the preceding seven days, Don has traveled from Tbilisi to Damascus, Norway, Holland and then to the last country, completely nameless before making his way to the French inn. The reason for his travels is never made clear, nor is his motivation for relating his story to the innkeeper. This sense of mysterious imbalance is compounded by the narrator's recounting of Don Juan's tales, which often deal with seductions and couplings either offstage or with clinical swiftness. The pointedly dry story about a character famous as a connoisseur of pleasures holds interest as a concept, but the novel's entertainment value is quickly buried under a pile of unanswered questions, and the endless deferring of literal and figurative climaxes feels almost like punishment. (Feb.) 
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From Booklist

Over the garden wall of an inn southwest of Paris, whose chef-proprietor is failing as a restaurateur, the legendary seducer leaps one May afternoon, fleeing a black-leather-clad couple on a motorcycle. Given a meal, he remains seven days, on each evening of which he relates his experiences of the corresponding day of the week preceding. He has been through a “womantime,” encompassing amorous encounters in Tbilisi, Damascus, Ceuta, Holland, Norway, and a “completely nameless” country—a prodigious itinerary, especially given the horse-drawn carriage in which he has traveled, driven by a servant he has recruited as effortlessly as he has managed to have the proprietor cook for him. He never has any trouble finding servants, it seems, nor amours. Everyone obliges him without his lifting a finger, and yet he feels—and is—always pursued. Handke’s perfectly suave novella is a rich tapestry of contradictions about desire and class that, besides its other pleasures, tweaks us with the facts that the chef, not Juan, narrates it and that it provocatively begs the question, Version of what? --Ray Olson