Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical:

. . . Don Juan came hurtling head over heels onto my property. He had been preceded by a sort of spear, or lance, that whizzed through the air in an arc and dug itself into the earth right at my feet. The cat, which was lying next to that spot on the grass, blinked a few times, then went right back to sleep, and a sparrow — what other bird could have pulled this off? — landed on the still quivering shaft, which then continued to quiver. In actuality the lance was just a hazel branch, slightly pointed at the tip, such as you could cut for yourself anywhere in the forests around Port-Royal.

The novella’s subtitle, which translates literally as something closer to “As Told by Himself,” is misleading for a few reasons, most obviously that Don Juan isn’t actually the narrator. We do not hear Don Juan directly describe his exploits — not even in quoted dialogue — but instead are told everything secondhand, by the chef. Additionally, the novella is not a retelling of the famous Don Juan legend depicted in the well-known play by Molière or the libretto of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Instead, Don Juan’s narrative spans the previous week, a period marked by encounters with several women. We get fewer details of each encounter than of the one before, ostensibly because they are significant to Don Juan only in the ways that they differ from each other. Also, we might suspect, Handke feels that each encounter is basically the same as the others. All that seems to interest him is the archetype.

The first of the week’s encounters is with a young bride in a village near Tblisi, Georgia, and the last is one about which we receive no details whatsoever. The intermediate encounters take place in far-flung cities — Damascus, Ceuta (North Africa), Bergen (Norway), and an unnamed city in Holland — due to Don Juan’s supernatural ability to travel quickly from one part of the world to another, in the company of his servant, the driver who initially met him at the Tblisi airport.

In order to characterize these encounters, the word “seduction” is studiously avoided. This is because, according to Don Juan himself (via the chef), he “was no seducer.” The chef explains:

He had never seduced a woman. He had certainly run into some who had accused him of doing so. But these women had either been lying or no longer knew what they were thinking, and had actually intended to express something altogether different. And conversely, Don Juan had never been seduced by a woman. Perhaps now and then he had let one of these would-be seductresses have their way, or whatever it was, only to make it clear to her in the twinkling of an eye that there was no seduction involved and that he, the man, was neither the seducee nor the opposite. He had a kind of power. But his power was of a different sort.

Perhaps his power is linked to the fact that this “version” of Don Juan is propelled not by lust or the urge to conquest, but by a profound sadness:

Don Juan was orphaned, and not in any figurative sense. Years earlier he had lost the person closest to him, not his father or his mother, but his child, his only child, or at least so it seemed to me. So one could also become an orphan when one’s child died, and how. Or maybe his woman had died, the only one he loved?

. . . What drove him was nothing but his inconsolability and his sorrow. To transport his sorrow to the world and transmit it to the world. Don Juan lived off his sorrow as a source of strength. It was bigger than he was and transcended him. Armored in it, so to speak, and not merely so to speak, he knew that although he was not immortal he was invulnerable. Sorrow was something that made him impetuous, and, in an opposite and equal reaction (or rather action by action), completely permeable and open to whatever might happen, while at the same time invisible when necessary. His sorrow furnished provisions for his journey. It nourished him in every respect. As a result he had no major needs. Such needs did not even rear their heads. . . . His sorrowing, fundamental rather than episodic, was an activity.

Indeed, Handke’s Don Juan is hardly the romancer and swashbuckler of legend but more of a tempered and introspective figure, much like the protagonists in many of Handke’s works since Slow Homecoming (1984). These characters are personified as wanderers — sojourners often suffering from unspecified psychological trauma, whose psychic survival seems to depend on their capacity to apprehend every last detail of their physical surroundings. This is why so much of Handke’s fiction is both mentally claustrophobic and expansively celebratory of nature, why it can feel at the same time so suffocatingly pessimistic about humanity and yet unguardedly optimistic that the soul may nevertheless flourish in a world that contains so much splendor. Toward the end of the novella, the chef captures some of this natural beauty:

In the hill forests around Port-Royal the edible chestnuts had just come into bloom, and the cream-colored strings of blossoms hung down among the dark oaks like crowns of foam atop waves, seething on all sides in the area surrounding the ruins, and from the silent surf rose, at the very top, back on the Île-de-France plateau, the pale red roof of the former cloister stables of Port-Royal, a roof with a tile landscape more beautiful and strange and yet dreamily familiar, as part of a barely discovered planet, than anything I had seen before, and the swallows swooping above it into the last sunlight moved twice as fast, as if propelled by the light.

Don Juan: His Own Version is an intriguing and frequently thought-provoking exercise. Although not on par with Handke’s earlier work, it contains many examples of his acutely self-aware and at times exquisitely gorgeous prose. Even, as here, when displayed only occasionally to its best advantage, Handke’s voice is strong and nearly unparalleled in contemporary world literature.




 Dan Vitale’s review of Handke’s DON JUAN is a good deal more perceptive than most that have appeared in this country. Nonetheless, he misses a few essential features. Don Juan is but a state of mind, a wishfulfilment into which the restaurateur, who is but a figure out of NO-MAN’S BAY, falls at a moment that he is especially bereft, a moment, it is a dream, a fantasy, and it is so magical in jumping from place to place as a dream or a cut film can be. WOMANTIME is the significant term here that is missed, this is no archetype; Vitale also avoids mention of Don Juan’s sidekick, the chauffeur, who only loves ugly women and whose sex life would seem to be a good deal grosser; also that the book celebrates as the great pop song had it “what’s love got to do with it” – bodies enjoying each other’s sexuality. It is as earthy as the mushrooms the restaurateur fancies. Formally, the book combines the novelistic, film, dream and the essayistic; the figure that organizes it spatially and narratively are the whirling dervishes. The faster they whirl the calmer the center as the book narrows down and then, once WOMANTIME is over and the TELLINGis over, it unravels as does Don Juan back in ordinary counting time. The book is about the eros of writing and loving that more than anything else, and is its own demonstration. It is one of Handke’s finest and subtles works, it asks to be read sentence by sentence, at about the pace at which it was written, 1000 words a day, and touches the very dark heart of the world: or rather, as it says: “brushes is” – and wishes that by merely brushing it represents more accurately. And isn’t it odd that although a certain merriment prevails, is basic mode is rater B-minor, melancholy.



Don Juan: His Own Version by Peter Handke

Adam Wilson

web exclusive

It sounds like the setup for a joke: Don Juan, chased by a leather-clad couple on a motorcycle, somersaults over a fence and into the garden of a French country inn. He stays at the inn for seven days, regaling the innkeeper with tales of his travels and trysts. But this is no joke; it's the beguiling narrative arc of Peter Handke's peculiar new novel, Don Juan: His Own Version.

Some context: Handke is the Austrian-born postmodernist best known for A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a hauntingly unaffected memoir about his mother's suicide. His novels include The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, about a man wandering an Austrian border town after committing murder, and A Moment of True Feeling, about a man who ecstatically murders someone in a dream, then wanders the streets of Paris. Recently, Handke's controversial defense of Slobodan Milosevic has cast a long dark shadow on his reputation. Considering all of this, Don Juan seems an odd choice for Handke, who has never been known for his interest in romance.

From the book's opening, it's clear that Handke is interested in the nature of storytelling. Though the novel's cover promises Don Juan's "version," the narrator is not the title character but the innkeeper he meets after the crash. "Don Juan," the novel begins, "had always been looking for someone to listen to him. Then one fine day he found me. He told me his story, but in the third person rather than in the first. At least that is how I recall it now."

Reliable or not, the innkeeper gives us a portrait of the "real" Don Juan, who challenges all perceived notions of Don Juan-ness. This Don Juan's plain-looking, and "no seducer." He conceals his gift by avoiding eye contact. He's in perpetual mourning for either a child or a lover, the innkeeper's not sure, and has taken to (like many Handke characters) wandering, driven by, "nothing but his inconsolability and his sorrow."

Don Juan's arrival at the inn directly follows a brief, unexplained renaissance. In the past week, he's traveled through seven different countries, collapsing into bed with seven different women. This is the story he tells the innkeeper, each day describing the events of the previous week's corresponding day. But if it's thinly veiled erotica you're after, look elsewhere. Handke completely skips the sex scenes in favor of Don Juan's high-wire post-coital departures, ruminating instead on the nature of time and space.

In addition to offering us an unromantic view of sexual attraction, Handke's revisionist book points to the unreliability of accepted narratives. But his meditations about revising the Don Juan myth, though thoughtful, are hard to stomach when you consider that the author made a similar argument about Milosevic. At the genocidal leader's funeral, Handke intimated that Milosevic has been historically misrepresented. This isn't to say that Handke is treating Don Juan, the world's greatest lover, as a stand-in for the genocidal leader. But his approach to giving the "real" story about both figures feels similarly willful and defensive.

In his introduction to a recent edition of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Jeffrey Eugenides compares Handke with American postmodernists like Pynchon and Coover, who were "fatigued with the concept of realism." "Handke," Eugenides writes, "despairs of narrative out of sheer despair." What's missing from Don Juan is the irresolvable anguish that pervades each page of Handke's best work. Handke's Don Juan has its moments of sorrow, but it mostly feels like the product of a writer trying to make a point. This book is all head, no heart.

Adam Wilson is the Deputy Editor of the Faster Times.









Handke’s Don Juan, approximately his 100th work in German and about 35th to be translated in a nearly 50 year publishing career, superbly so by Krishna Winston I might say [1], is best read, as is all his work - but increasingly more so now that he has become a narrator’s narrator and no longer relies as exclusively on phenomenological and serial and grammatical procedures - at the pace it was written, two or three pages, the writer’s writer 1000 words a day, and when you pick it up again the next day you may read what you had read the day previous, and you will get more out of it: Handke has his very own kind of density that even Joyceans who can read Finnegan’s Wake at a fair pace can miss; a failure to pursue which I think is due, now, to the apparent fluency, almost done nonchalantly of his narrative. From the very first, too, Handke has been a deceiver of the first order, and his audience has fallen for his MacGuffins {“Einen Jucks will er sich machen” is the name of a play by one of his great predecessor”, and “Don Juan” indeed is a MacGuffin of a very special sort, several packed in one, it’s a true mother fucker of a book, and American reviewers from A to Z have fallen for its McGuffins hook line and sinker: they came to see “Public Insults” for the sensationalist series of chordlike insults at the end: but first had to suffer being made entirely self-conscious not just about being in the world but being in the theater and the author being always one step ahead of them with what he knew they were experiencing. A Surprise Symphony of sorts, “He wants to Make a Joke” as Nestroy’s play has it. Very Austrian if you like. Handke is at least as cunning at this point as Joyce. From the very first, also, Peter Handke has provided particular kinds of experiences, either on stage or the page. Those are his chief play grounds. The games the “melancholy player” as he calls himself plays have language and experience rules, rules of time and space, formal rules, and one of their aspects is that they are projection screens in which the reader or playgoer discovers himself: “Quodlibet” – the name of a fundamental text of his – as you like it - will catch your conscience, the conscience of the audience king. As in a game of chess these linguistic or phenomenological games, too, have rules, of course rather deeper and more complicates ones, which can access various strata of your being. Meanwhile Handke has become such a damn master that in Don Juan and in the subsequent novels Kali and Morawian Night, that are not in English yet, he can riff like a stride jazz pianist, yet maintaining the classical style, he has written himself into a mode of classical freedom. I at least find this sort of thing fairly amazing, and Don Juan being so short, it has not long stretches of it as do Del Gredos and particularly Moravian:






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