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.