Sunday, 26 October 2014

Nicholas Lezard on A Modern Don Juan, in the Guardian

I love the way we can’t get shot of Juan; 
Byron’s roaming lad appeals so much 
That even now we think that he is due an 
Update, or a rebrand, or some such. 
He charms us still: each conquest is a new one, 
But you always know that he’ll be back in touch. 
(And there’s something nice about ottava rima; 
It seems to suit a brash romantic schemer.
Lord Byron’s original poem stops abruptly in its 17th canto, after enough words to fill a fat novel, before his death in 1824. A couple of years ago, I read a modern continuation, and it worked very well: you could see how Byron’s structure, the beat of his rhymes and rhythms, obliged the modern poet to think like him, become possessed by him. Because the Byron of Don Juan is so likable, as is the Don Juan of Don Juan, this isn’t a bad thing.
In this collection we have 15 contemporary poets shoehorning their inspiration into the tight but not uncomfortable rhyme scheme. I wasn’t familiar with them all. I’ve written about Andy Croft before, when he reimagined Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the style of Pushkin’s sonnetsGeorge Szirtes and Sinéad Morrissey are TS Eliot prize winners (2004 and 2013 respectively) and Ian Duhig has been shortlisted for the award; the others are all distinguished as either poets or teachers of poetry. Amit Majmudar is apparently “a novelist, poet, essayist and diagnostic nuclear radiologist”, so should his poetic gift desert him, he has a few fall-back positions.
So these are all trustworthy voices, and they have a lot of fun hauling Juan into the modern age (his name is not pronounced in the Spanish fashion, by the way; lines one and three of my doggerel above, an attempt not so much to walk a mile in Byron’s moccasins as to walk 40 feet, have at least the virtue of showing how to get it right). He is called Donny Johnson, or something similar, in a few of the poems here, and is more than once imagined as a DJ (geddit?). He is also rather more of a bounder than I remember Byron making him. In fact, the whole point of Byron’s Juan was to make him more hapless seducee than seducer, but never mind.
Everyone here has put in a lot of hard work, and most of it pays off, some of it handsomely. Croft’s rhymes in particular are laugh-out-loud funny (“Minerva’s Owl”/ “Simon Cowell”; and, the narrator being a prisoner, we get “lecture” to rhyme with “Norman Stanley Fletcher”). And he has a sneer at Guardian critics, which is a poem’s invariable hallmark of purity and authenticity.
So this is really a continuation, or extrapolation, of Byron’s work, which was already, in a way, modern. Byron, in the original Don Juan, was at times almost ridiculously digressive, given over to pontification and moralisation as well as to the occasional outrageous rhyme or enjambement, but his poem was also a way of poking pomposity in the eye and standing up for the oppressed, or the victims of injustice (we find Juan in contemporary austerity Greece in the updated version). And here’s the clever thing: even though the poets are using the same scheme, you get more than a glimpse of how their individual voices sound; of what goes on in their heads. This was always Byron’s great trick: to teach you something when all you think you are doing is having a good time.
A Modern Don Juan is in the shops now...

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