Lord Byron's satirical take on the legend of Don Juan is a moving and witty poem that sees the young hero in a reversal of roles. Juan sheds his image as a womanizer and instead becomes the victim of circumstance as he is relentlessly pursued by every woman he meets. Comprising 17 cantos of rhyming iambic pentameter, the poem is a crisp and accessible meditation on the madness of the world.
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In some ways, Jonathan Keeble's new recording of Byron's "Don Juan" is far and away the best on Audible, being quite free from such impediments of timbre, mannerism, and affectation as detract from the earlier versions by Robert Bethune, Frederick Davidson, and Charlton Griffin. Keeble is a superbly accomplished narrator, in complete command of his vocal instrument and of the tonal effects he wants to achieve with it in every passage, line, pause, and syllable. He knows (or thinks he knows) what complex of effects Byron aims at in every moment of the text, calculates every nuance of his performance accordingly, and realizes those effects with pinpoint accuracy.
Just one problem: his notion of the effects Byron is trying to achieve is spectacularly wrong-headed.
It's true, of course, that Byron employs a rich palette of tones over the more-than-sixteen-canto span of his masterpiece. But the keynote tone of the whole is this: the poem is funny. Setting aside the humorous parts of "The Canterbury Tales," it is unquestionably the outstanding comic poem in English. Its satire may sometimes drip with sneering disdain or thunder with prophetic wrath (Keeble does these very well), but mostly it is undisguised, exuberant, sophisticated wit that finds the poet insouciantly skewering innumerable puffed-up solemnities we can hardly believe anyone has ever taken seriously.
Yet Keeble seems unaware of this. One might think he supposed himself to be narrating, not the ribald misadventures of Don Juan, but the solemn mopings and meanderings of Childe Harold. The keynote tone of this audiobook is stern, solemn, grim, with only faint shadows of lightness of touch. Sometimes, as in the shipwreck episode, this approach is perfectly correct. But most often, Keeble's earnest tone is simply not pertinent to the jaunty self-projection of Byron's stinging barbs, and it is impertinent, too, therefore, in that it disrespects the sustained and scintillating levity that Byron so deliciously achieved.
Given all this, a rating for this book is hard to settle on. On its own terms, I must admit, it is magnificently done, and I did enjoy listening to it, but in a quite different way than I enjoyed Bethune despite his pinched nasality, Davidson despite his cloying preciousness, and Griffin despite his elaborately assumed pseudo-cultured-Britisher persona. If those other versions manage to capture the poet's comic achievement only imperfectly, Keeble's stands in one way as definitive--but definitive for a Bizarro world in which Byron's work is predominantly a triumph of straightfaced gravity rather than vivacity of wit. Should you spend a credit on it? After listening to the samples, I guess you pays your money and you takes your choice. But for a notion of how "Don Juan" ought to be done, listen to the free online recordings of selected cantos by Peter Gallagher.