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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Don Juan: His Own Version

Peter Handke

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To purchase Don Juan: His Own Version

Title: Don Juan: His Own Version
Author: Peter Handke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 159 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Don Juan: His Own Version - US
Don Juan: His Own Version - UK
Don Juan: His Own Version - Canada
Don Juan (erzählt von ihm selbst) - Deutschland
. Don Juan (raconté par lui-même) - France
Don Giovanni - Italia
Don Juan contado por él mismo - España
  • German title: Don Juan (erzählt von ihm selbst)
  • Translated by Krishna Winston

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Our Assessment:

B+ : seductive turn, if not entirely successful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 7/8/2004 Ernst Osterkamp
The LA Times . 31/1/2010 Natasha Randall
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 3/8/2004 Martin Meyer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/2/2010 Joel Agee
The New Yorker . 8/3/2010 .
Die Presse . 13/8/2004 Anton Thuswaldner
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2010 John Madera
TLS . 11/3/2005 Ian Brunskill
Die Welt . 31/7/2004 Hanns-Josef Ortheil
Die Zeit . 12/8/2004 Iris Radisch

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, most at least find it intriguing

  From the Reviews:
  • "Man geht durch diese entspannte Prosa, deren Titel heiße Sommernächte verspricht, hindurch wie durch einen warmen Frühlingshauch. Das ist angenehm; man sollte es genießen. Und am Ende doch energisch den Kopf schütteln, wenn man den Schlußsatz liest" - Ernst Osterkamp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(H)is Don Juan isn't corralled into any tidy deliverance. The moral ambiguity of this retelling is evident from the very start. (...) 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." - Natasha Randall, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Don Juan (erzählt von ihm selbst) ist deshalb auch ein Stück Meditation. ‘Philosophie’ über Zeit und Vergänglichkeit, über Liebe und Tod. Vor allem, nach allem Gesagten, über das Spirituelle, wenig Greifliche der Liebe. Doch vergessen wir darüber nicht die Ironie, die Handke versteckt in die Zeilen legt." - Martin Meyer, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "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. (...) 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." - Joel Agee, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel’s action is obscured behind screens of philosophically tinted analysis touching on the nature of relationships, storytelling, and time. And yet the story itself is suffused with the freshness of the French countryside in which it largely takes place" - The New Yorker

  • "Don Juan ist auch nicht mehr der, der er einmal war. Früher, als es noch richtige Männer gab, war er der Verführer, ein Meister der Liebeskunst, ein Draufgänger und Haudegen der Zärtlichkeit. Jetzt ist er Peter Handke begegnet, und schon hat er schlapp gemacht. (...) Handkes Erzählung über Don Juan gehört in das Genre der spirituell unterfütterten säkularen Heilsbücher. (...) Handke schreibt das aller Erotik entkleidete Evangelium Don Juans." - Anton Thuswaldner, Die Presse

  • "So this book -- itself a kind of library -- offers another kind of love, namely, bibliophilia. Krishna Winston’s pellucid translation of Don Juan is a visual patchwork" - John Madera, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Don Juan (erzählt von ihm selbst) marks a tightly written, richly allusive return to what he does best: making sense of the ways we make sense of the world." - Ian Brunskill, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Die Mischung all dieser Momente gibt der Erzählung einen Anflug von Märchenhaftem und macht sie zu einem langen Traum oder einer Fantasie, die sich freier entfalten soll als eine konventionelle Geschichte, vor nichts ist Handke trotzig und eigensinnig seit Jahrzehnten mehr auf der Flucht als vor den Konturen solcher Geschichten, auch diesmal wird er nicht zum Erzähler, sondern bleibt der Beschwörer von Räumen und Augenblicken, der sich rigide verweigert, wenn die Erzählmotive zu einer Begründung, Erklärung oder gar einer Entwicklung hin drängen." - Hanns-Josef Ortheil, Die Welt

  • "Aus der Begegnung zwischen dem verwaisten Koch und der verlebendigten Literatur entsteht ein schmales Buch, das leichtgewichtig und charmant ist und doch die ganze schwere Metaphysik des Handkeschen Œuvres in sich trägt. (...) Die Idee, die Handke seit Jahren verfolgt und der auch dieses Buch gewidmet ist, ist die von der anderen Zeit" - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Handke's Don Juan-novella is an unusual take on the legendary figure. For one, it is subtitled: erzählt von ihm selbst ("as told by himself"), but is, in fact, recounted strictly second hand. The nameless narrator who does tell this tale spends as much time recounting his own experience, specifically as the audience for Don Juan's stories, as he does on Don Juan's tales themselves.
       This Don Juan is also unusual because it is set in the present, yet the central figure is that familiar, legendary one. But that's part of the story: Don Juan is literally timeless.
       The setting is contemporary France. The narrator is a cook, living near the ruins of Port Royal des Champs. He has largely failed at his business, and lives in near-isolation. And it is this world that Don Juan breaks into: fleeing, he seeks and finds sanctuary and a brief respite here.
       It is as much the narrator as Don Juan who needs a change; indeed, just before the arrival of Don Juan the narrator, a lifelong avid reader, wakes up with the resolution: "Genug vom lesen !" ("Enough of reading !") and sets aside his books. Don Juan becomes their replacement. The timing of his appearance -- and the fact that it is him, and not another literary figure (as the narrator seems equally prepared for) -- is no coincidence: story, and story-telling remain central (as so often in Handke), and while the written text can be put aside, the narrator can not survive without narrative. (The possibility that this story is all fantasy, a fiction played out in the narrator's mind, can also not be ignored.)
       Don Juan, "fluchtgewohnt and fluchtgeübt" ("well-versed and well-practised in flight"), flees here, and it becomes a temporary break from his life and lifestyle, as though time itself had come to a stop. The outside world isn't held completely at bay -- the narrator and Don Juan do visit town, go to the movies, interact with others -- but for the one week of his stay Don Juan doesn't move at his usual frenzied pace and doesn't get drawn into the passionate encounters that are inescapable elsewhere. Instead, Don Juan recounts his adventures of the past week: each day of his stay he tells the narrator what happened seven days before, filling the one week with the events of the previous one.
       Don Juan's stories are of passion but not seduction. The narrator states emphatically:

     Don Juan war kein Verführer. Er hatte noch nie eine Frau verführt.

     (Don Juan was no seducer. He had never seduced a woman.)
       What Don Juan did and does is described as something different, the passionate couplings an inevitable outcome, but the way they come about not through any tricks or the like, but because they are inevitable. They seem to result from enchantment more than any actual effort by Don Juan.
       Seven days' adventures are described, from Tiflis (Tbilsi, in formerly Soviet Georgia) to Damascus and Norway and Holland. Don Juan describes the landscape of his first adventure in close detail -- but the later landscapes are similar ones, even if the locales are completely different. In most of the places Don Juan has a servant or helper, though he is notably absent on this French sojourn until the end).
       There's little explanation about how Don Juan and his companion might have gone from place to place, and it's hardly relevant. Place itself isn't particularly relevant, and the final one is "vollständig namenlos" ("entirely nameless"). Time, too, blurs and much happens literally: "in keiner Zeit" ("in no time"). It is this timelessness -- which can't be sustained in this real-world France, and leads Don Juan to get more frantic and time-obsessed as the week there comes to an end -- that is also central to the novel.
       Lost, too, is the concept of enumeration. Don Juan doesn't count his conquests; indeed, number is almost an impossibility. Instead Don Juan sees this central part of his world, the women, differently, the alphabet substituting for numbers
Nicht zählen, sondern buchstabieren.

(Not count, but to spell out.)
       (The German is also more suggestive: the verb 'to count' is zählen, while 'to tell (a story)' is erzählen.)
       Over the seven days Don Juan constantly changes, in contrast to the narrator who goes along with him but remains largely the same. The week in this one place is not so much a time of interruption but of regeneration, the telling of Don Juan's story -- the reliving of seven typical days in the life -- a means of adapting the legend to the present, reinvention that sees no change in the subject but rather in how the subject is seen. Handke's Don Juan isn't about sex, but about story-telling.
       Don Juan departs and the narrator concludes:
Don Juans Geschichte kann kein Ende haben, und das ist, sage und schreibe, die endgültige und wahre Geschichte Don Juans.

(Don Juan's story can have no end, and this is, all said and done, the final and true story of Don Juan.)
       Don Juan neatly plays with that inherent contradiction of fiction: its absolutism -- a complete and exclusive world rendered in mere words -- which neverthless can't eliminate the possibility of countless similar, dissimilar, and even contradictory other-worlds. A novel can end with a period on the final page, yet finality (and literal truth) are illusory.
       Handke's Don Juan is an interesting text. More than anything, Handke is an obsessive story-teller, but, like A.S.Byatt, he is also interested in the meaning, possibilities, and consequences of story-telling, and uses his fictions to explore these. The legendary Don Juan transposed into the present is an interesting figure to fixate on, and the result is pure Handke: no one else could have written this text. But the experiment is not entirely successful.
       Handke warns the readers from the first, with an epigraph from Da Ponte's libretto to Mozart's opera: "Chi son'io tu non saprai" ("You will not discover who I am"): it is not disguise but the very identity of the central figure that will remain unkowable. (Recall also the preceding words: "Donna folle ! indarno gridi !" ("Foolish woman ! Your screams are in vain !")). It's difficult both to use that legend and yet allow it to retain the necessary air of the unknowable, and Handke's Don Juan -- confusingly unreal yet also based so firmly on the familiar story -- doesn't entirely convince.
       The story, too, moves unevenly -- a reflection of the indeterminate narrator, perhaps, but without adequate compensation in pure narrative. Parts of the book -- which is very short -- are slow going; there seems to be some hesitancy on the part of the author, an uncertainty of how he might (or dare) proceed.
       Certainly interesting, and in part very impressive, but not entirely successful.

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Don Juan: His Own Version: Reviews: Peter Handke: Other books by Peter Handke under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Prolific Austrian author Peter Handke was born in 1942. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019.

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