Han Ryner, “The Secret of Don Juan” (1915)

[I’m working my way through the translation of six shorts stories by Han Ryner, published in French in The Smart Set between July 1913 and January 1920. These initial translation are definitely rough, “working” versions, as I get better acquainted with the peculiarities of Ryner’s style. But I think even the rough renditions give a good indication of what is interesting about the works. For those unfamiliar with the Don Juan story, or who need a refresher, this will probably help.]
By Han Ryner
All of the accounts of the interview of Don Juanand the Commander are inaccurate, andthe puerile words reported by various authors were not uttered. The genuine dialogue expressed deep, singular things, andit is perhaps my duty to make them known.
It is true that the statue invited the living man to dine, and that the living man accepted. And the man of stone admired the valor of the man of flesh. But he said, with a smile more sad than haughty:
“I have no need of courage. I am the one for whom danger does not exist.
The Commander asked, mocking:
“Do you believe yourself immortal?”
“No, replied the seducer. And yet I cannot die, I who am not living.
The statue, astonished, took a step back. And it exclaimed:
“You know that! Already!
“I realized it yesterday while walking in the forest.”
But the statue shook its heavy head gravely.
“What have you understood?” it said. “The words are vagaries and vanities. Each is rich with a thousand meanings, but the majority of these meanings are so shabby!… Perhaps you know nothing and have said nothing.
“I know myself and I have spoken myself. Now, Don Juan explained:
“Every living being is eternal. Oh, the noble and infinite poem of which each existence speaks a phrase. One phrase, do you hear? A single verb and a single music, the flower of a new sentiment marvelously blossoming on the stem of a new thought. Myself, this time around, I am a miserable and painful transition, creator of unity, without unity itself. Dispersed by my effort to embrace too much past and too much future, I am not of the present.
He mused some more, speaking slowly:
“Sometimes, when traveling, in certain places unknown to our present memory a strange nostalgia arises in us; we dream of living and dying in this setting which seems to be our setting. Spurred by their destiny this time, by the necessity of accomplishing all the work of the day, the others pass. The desire of an instant fades little by little like a dream. And they do not know what truth that lie was made of; they do not suspect that the passing uneasiness with the remembrance of a former sojourn or, more rarely, what I will dare to call the blind anticipation of a future life. I, who have nothing to do today, who was not a determined act and being, I have stopped everywhere, I have transformed into realities all my vague desires indifferently and given myself all the disappointments. I yawn, at the end of a wasted day, where I lay, bored, on the lying grass which beckons me.
He added, more bitterly:
“The noblest expression of unity is love. Certainly, the most faithful hear within them the call of many desires, fine memories or lovely premonitions. Each phrase of the poem is illuminated splendidly by the reflections of the preceding phrases, and it advances toward the uncertain glimmer that already seems to light the future. But I am not myself a new idea. I am not a new love. I am not an increase. I love no one, and no wealth is added to my treasure. A thousand kisses, soon terrifying, have brought to my lips the odor of corpses decay; and yet, mistresses of Don Juan, you were almost all, in some past existences, true beloveds and living loves. And you who nettle my soul as the green fruit nettles the teeth, ah! how sweet you will be in the future. I long to escape this transition made of a thousand irresolute stammerings, to finally be a destiny which affirms. For pity’s sake, statue, help my dispersion to die. Kill, I beg of you, the death that I am, so that, by the necessary trials, I may finally rise to the unity of a life and a love.”
The Commander did not make a movement.
Head hung low, Don Juan asked:—Has the beloved of my present life forgotten the rendezvous and she has not come on this earth? Or do I not know how to recognize her? Speak, if you know.
The statue kept silent.
Don Juan grasped it with both hands, wishing shake it. But despite his effort, it was still as a mountain.
Now, during the futile effort, he repeated the question. Finally he obtained a response,—a long snicker.
Then his vanquished hands pulled back from the statue. And on his lips appeared the light of the smile which understands and accepts.
“God is not mistaken,” he said. “Doubtless, the summary was necessary to the good order of the whole. But I thank you, Lord, for I sense it is at its end, the tiresome and tedious transition.”
Before the still and still silent statue, without the earth opening up, without the thunder groaning, Don Juan collapsed on the indifferent earth, apparently killed by the too exact consciousness of his nothingness.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur; from The Smart Set, March 1915.]
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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.