- ‘Aspects of Byron’s Don Juan’ Nottingham Trent University 5 May 2012
The annual conference, held at the Ada Byron King Building at Nottingham Trent University, has become a byword for scholarly and convivial gatherings in the UK for Byronists and Romanticists over the last nine years. This year was no exception, and the conference, on ‘Aspects of Don Juan’, was a stimulating event, though not untinged with sadness. The organiser, Peter Cochran, a leading figure in Byron studies and organiser of the conference, has decided to bow out of Byron studies by the end of 2013. His presence will be greatly missed, though he will assist Mirka Horova, the new conference organiser, who has kindly agreed to step into the breach in his absence. The conference was a tribute to Peter: talks were as enjoyable as they were thought-provoking with each speaker rising to the occasion.
In the opening plenary session, chaired by Ken Purslow (Newstead Byron Society), Peter Cochran (Newstead Abbey) bowed out in typically impressive style with a talk entitled ‘Don Juan and Tradition or, Little Juan’s Potty’ which sought to provide a definitive outline of the European and English literary traditions with which Don Juan ‘plays so many different games’. After a brief discussion of the debt to Homer and the Italian mock-epic tradition, he focused on Don Juan’s more immediate predecessors. These included Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, with which Byron shares many satirical targets, and Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore, an inspiration for Byron’s ‘merry attitude to religion’. Byron was also influenced by the sceptical spirit of Montaigne’s essays, as well as his eschewal of system and openness to all experience. In Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Byron had seen a character whose life often reads as if it were literature. Cochran drew detailed parallels between Don Juan and the works of Sterne, Smollett and Fielding.
After coffee, the conference split into two groups. Session 1A was chaired by Mirka Horova (Charles, Prague), Session 1B by Anna Camilleri (Oxford).
Diego Saglia (Parma) began 1A with ‘“Don Alfonso” and the Theatrical Matrix of Don Juan’ which explained the theatrical influences on Byron as he composed Don Juan. The ‘theatrical matrix’ was much wider than the London stage familiar to Byron and his British readers. It was an intersection of theatrical experiences in various Italian towns such as Milan, Vicenza, Venice and Lucca as well as such concepts as theatricality and ‘self-spectacularisation’, but also involved Byron’s own dramatic works, theatrical sources and fragments that may have inspired the poet. A key part of this matrix, [End Page 167] which Saglia examined in detail, was Byron’s unwritten play ‘Don Alfonso’, which he described as a ‘powerful counter-text’ to Don Juan. Saglia drew attention to the ‘highly peculiar network’ that exists between Don Juan and ‘Don Alfonso’: both share similarities in plot, a ‘Byronic’ hero, sexual intrigue, mystery, existentialism, a Spanish component, and dramatic, gothic and Faustian modes. Saglia suggested ‘Don Alfonso’ could be interpreted as a double of Don Juan: a speculative ‘evil twin’, ‘the road not taken’ and a ‘closing down of textual possibilities’. Itsuyo Higashinaka (Ryukoku) followed with ‘Don Juan’s comic rhymes’, an entertaining excursus of Byron’s ‘careful and intentional’ rhyming scheme. Also referring to Swift, Pope and Frere, he paid special attention to the two rhymes in the first six lines of the ottava rima. Higashinaka explained that Byron seems particularly inclined to manipulate proper nouns, whether these are personal names, fictitious or real, ancient or modern, foreign or British. This manipulation of rhymes indicates an authentic love for foreign languages as well as an attitude to play with words and phrases from different languages. This morning session ended with Nataliya Solovyova’s (Lomonosov State, Moscow) ‘Don Juan and Russia’, which touched on aspects of the double-context of ‘Byron and Russia’ and ‘Russia and Byron’, and concluded that ‘the Russian background of Don Juan was intricate and controversial’. Solovyova mentioned that an understanding of Russian diplomacy in Italy and Switzerland was critical for understanding the poem.
Parallel session 1B offered three papers ranging from consistency, to influence, and...