02 November 2013

The gospel according to Don Juan

Don Juan: His Own Version by Peter Handke, translated by Krishna Winston (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)


The German Literature Month is in full swing. I have chosen to read Peter Handke's version of the ageless lover boy Don Juan, in the latter's "own version". We have a confessional narrative, told in a frame story. Don Juan was telling his adventures and exploits, sexual and otherwise, to a cook in a French country inn. We learned many things about the lover. But what appears to be a saucy story was anything but that. The epigraph gave everything away. Da Ponte and Mozart: Chi son' io tu non saprai. Who I am, you shall not know.

Don Juan was recently mourning the death of his son. To distract himself, he went around Europe and Middle East and, alas, found women attracted to him, to his "active gaze". His travels lasted for a week, what was known as his womanweek, his seven days of womantime. One day at a time, he told the cook about what happened on a particular day exactly a week before. He forbade the cook to ask questions or make unnecessary comments about the story he is telling. It was enough that Don Juan make a truthful account in his own version, in his own way.

Handke is a modern novelist. And by "modern" I meant someone interested in a story about stories, in the artifice behind narratives. The cook was an easy stand-in for the novelist. But there are several indications he was subbing for the reader.

Even my reading meant less and less to me. On the morning of the day when Don Juan turned up, on the run, I decided to give books a rest. Although I was in the middle of reading two seminal works, seminal not only for French literature and not only for the seventeenth century—Jean Racine's defense of the nuns of Port-Royal and Blaise Pascal's attack on the nuns' Jesuit detractors—I concluded from one minute to the next that I had read enough, at least for now. Read enough? My thought that morning was even more radical: "Enough of reading!" Yet I had been a reader all my life. A chef and a reader. What a chef. What a reader....

Don Juan's coming on that May afternoon took the place of reading for me. It was more than a mere substitute. The very fact that it was "Don Juan," instead of all those devilishly clever Jesuit padres from the seventeenth century, and also instead of a Lucien Leuwen and Raskolnikov, let us say, or a Mynheer Peeperkorn, a Señor Buendia, an Inspector Maigret, came as a breath of fresh air. At the same time, Don Juan's arrival literally offered me the sense of widening my inner horizons, of bursting boundaries, that I usually experienced only from reading, from excited (and exciting), blissful reading.

The very fact that it was "Don Juan" should be enough liability for a writer to resurrect. The story, like the best love affairs, was cloaked in secrecy, drenched in the artifice of literary construction. It is short, 101 pages of distilled writing, just the right enough length for Handke to engage in César Aira-like "flight forward". Like Aira, Handke was novel-building through accumulation of seemingly benign details that suddenly acquired import—previously overlooked yet now sufficiently noticed because they were necessary for the story to proceed, to move forward into the continuum. Take for instance the scene when DJ was spying on a couple having sex al fresco.

Not until the week following this experience, when Don Juan was thinking about the couple, celebrating their one-week anniversary, as it were—he was sure he was celebrating it, and how!—did it occur to him that the labiate flowers on the broom branches framing the couple had been intensely yellow.


Not until the two naked couple in the hollow were apparently attacked by flies and ants did he turn to leave. Actually the insects had been there all along, but only now did they seem to start annoying the couple. Up to the last moment Don Juan had been waiting for something to happen with the two of them that would alter the course of events. What, for instance? No questions! he scolded me.

DJ was narrating from memory, and from memory details were added as if they were just remembered at the moment of the telling, exactly a week after. Not until the week following this experience ... did it occur to him. Thoughts occurred to him spontaneously, right there and then. Actually the insects had been there all along. DJ (the novelist) was waiting for things to add to the picture around the couple, the verisimilitude of their naked situation, perhaps to alter the course of events, if not to complete the story. Only now did they seem to start annoying the couple. There's the perfect excuse to clarify the version of things first witnessed.

As told by Handke, the story of DJ and his sexual encounters ("if in Georgia the floorboards had creaked under him and the woman there, here it was sand that crunched under them") was more than a pretext to move the story along. It was the vehicle for the character of DJ to go on with his sad life. He (Handke) had the baggage of fiction to consider, the appeal to make alive details surrounding a fictive character.

How to produce a narrative that can defy clichés? "In the end it was she who fled from DJ, and unlike his escapes, hers took place head over heels, without a moment's reflection, blindly, including movie-style collisions with the ferry passengers, knocking-over of metal drums, and the like." Perhaps to revivify the tired story-telling techniques, let the story embrace clichés, movie-style; apply chaos and stuff, and the like. It was a subtle approach to beat the daily grind of living.

It did not disturb him that most of  what had transpired before was repeated, and repeated again, with the women on the subsequent days of the week, nor did it cause him to hesitate, let alone recoil—he had recoiled for a moment only the first time, when there was not yet any question of repetition. Instead the repetition developed its own dynamics, each time more powerfully, and he let himself be carried along as if it were entirely natural, a law he had to comply with, if not a commandment. That was how it had to be: he had to do or avoid the same things with this woman here as with the one from the previous day. The very repetition lent him courage.

The inertia of repetition was a thing to be prized. The endless routine of things and his struggle to subvert it by seeking variations gave him comfort. Every experience of lovemaking was a consolation, a balm against death and irrelevance.

It goes without saying that I was not allowed to ask how they had got there. And I did not ask. It was enough that it seemed possible to me. Nor did I ask where Don Juan spent the night in Damascus, or where his servant slept. That was left to my imagination, as was the case with the next stages of the journey. But I did not need to picture settings, which would only have interfered with my listening, just as I did not need the Syrian weather report: it was clear that there, too, the May air was filled with swirling poplar-blossom fluff, and, as the story continued, I saw it rolling along the reddish yellow earth and floating past the likewise reddish yellow walls, while the material in its wake seemed increasingly weightless.

It was enough that the loose story hang together, that plausibility not be a total slave to logic. As long as fiction, its fruitful possibilities, seemed possible enough. The writer was there to trace the outline of a recognizable character, a timeless and repetitious lover. DJ's gospel was a version of a story that works enough for him. Apparently, by virtue of his close attention, the listener too (and who else was paying attention) has his own made up story. He has his own version.


  1. That's a lot of review for such a short book :) I think you made *your* own story out of it too!

    I'll be trying Handke too (hopefully) - not this one though...

  2. Thanks. The book was a literary minefield.

    I saw you mention The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick as a possible read. That one is wicked.

  3. Do you think they sell that "active gaze" in the stores? I could use a couple for my own womanweek, ha ha. That being said, I was interested to hear about this "Spanish" theme being translated into German and international waters all wrapped up in a César Aira-like page count. Not at all what I would have expected but it sounds promising nonetheless. P.S. Love that ALoD: A2 button I see on your sidebar even though I never really liked that particular book cover. Nice going!

  4. great Choice for german lit month Rise I ve just reaquaint myself with Handke after a long time since I last read him and agree he is a very modern writer I will certainly be reading this one at some point I ll have my review of a reread of the goalkeeper anxiety by him later in the month ,all the best stu

  5. Richard, the noir-ish cover was the closest at hand. It might be changed later. Handke's DJ is certainly a different flavored picaresque-opera.

    As to the particular gaze, my understanding is that readers are naturally gifted with the look. Should be effortless for them. *cough*.

  6. @ Stu: I look forward to your second look at Handke's provocative novel. He is a writer deserving of multiple readings.

  7. I've read a few Handke's and keep being attracted back for reasons I find very hard to pin down. He seems to disassemble stories and not quite piece them back together.

  8. A puzzle left unsolved. I like that description. He's not trying hard to produce a neat ending. In fact, he's not trying at all.