No Tomorrow, by Vivant Denon

Purchased at Amazon.ca

Translated by Lydia Davis

No Tomorrow has been resting in the priority bookcase beside my reading chair for more than nine months now, following an enthusiastic and perceptive review by Max at Pechorin’s Journal — he liked it so much that it was included in his list of 2010 top books. Max in turn was inspired by an equally positive review from John Self at The Asylum, who confessed that the book had sat on his shelf for 14 years before he got around to reading it. So, yes, this is one of those little treasures that the blogging world passes on to their visitors as a book to be read and appreciated and I hope this review will continue the trend.

The story (it seems too short to be even called a novella ) is only 33 pages long in the NYRB version that I have, so length was hardly a consideration in my delayed reading. Rather those two reviews convinced me that I should wait for the right time — a period when I wanted to read something that required intense, but brief, concentration. Given the celebrations and distractions that are an inevitable (and generally welcome) part of the holiday season (but equally require some contemplative breaks), Denon’s work seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It fulfilled that promise.

I cannot hope to do as well in framing the story as Peter Brooks does in the opening of his excellent introduction in the NYRB version:

No Tomorrow may be the most stylish erotic tale ever written. Erotic, while not at all pornographic. The whole art here is to stage a scene — itself highly theatrical — of sexual bliss without naming names, or parts, or detailing the acts taking place. Yet it is all perfectly lucid, even precise. No Tomorrow falls within a great French tradition of elegant eroticism — think Fragonard in painting and the line of fiction culminating in Choderlos de Laclos’s masterpiece of 1782, Les Liaisons dangereuses. It’s a tradition in which the erotic encounter becomes the outer limit and the test case of human social relations — a moment where a worldly sociability tilts into the intimacy of sex. Sex that isn’t necessarily tied to romantic love, that preserves a kind of lucid detachment about what it is, and yet sees itself as of intrinsic value. No Tomorrow, you could say, is about the ethics of pleasure: pleasure considered, planned, staged, given and received in a momentary exchange where the gift is all the more precious for its transcience.

A bit more background before getting to the story itself. First published in 1777, the author was identified as M.D.G.O.D.R. (taken to mean Monsieur Denon, Gentilhomme Ordinaire du Roi, although to this day some academics dispute Denon’s authorship since it is the only work of fiction he produced). An “improved” version (the one used here) appeared in 1812. Denon had an interesting and revealing history between those dates. He made his living as an engraver, moved into diplomacy, was a war artist (and wrote a travelogue) for Napoleon’s Egyptian war in 1798 and was appointed by Napoleon as the first director of French museums to organize and display the cultural “trophies” that Bonaparte brought home from his wars (that would be the Louvre, where Danon is acknowledged to this day). The traits that are required for those tasks — discipline, a respect for authority and convention, and, most important of all, an acute appreciation for intricate detail — are all on display here. It is little wonder that the author felt an “improved version” was demanded, 35 years after the original appeared.

The story opens in the aristocratic boxes of L’Opera, another metaphor that is reflected in the text. Opera is formal, detailed and ornate — in the story line, many elements of realism are simply ignored while those that remain often become almost grotesque in their importance. Those traits are all present in this short work.

The story is told in the first person, by a narrator looking back at his 20-year-old self in the opera box — Denon was 30 when he wrote the first version, so that seems a likely separation in time. The youth is awaiting the arrival of the Comtesse de —— with whom he is “desperately in love” — she has left him, but forgiven him (he says three times in the opening paragraph “I was naive”) and he now thinks himself “the best-loved lover”. A friend of the Comtesse, Mme de T——, beckons him to her box and the adventure that is No Tomorrow begins:

I bowed low, she hurried me into her box, I obeyed.

“Go to Monsieur’s house,” she told a servant, “and let them know he won’t be back this evening…” She then whispered in his ear and dismissed him. I ventured a few words, the opera began, she hushed me. We listened, or pretended to listen. The first act had scarcely ended when the same servant returned with a note for Mme de T——-, telling her everything was ready. She smiled, asked for my hand, went down to the street, and invited me into her carriage. We were already outside the city before I could find out what she intended to do with me.

In French fiction of this sort (more on that later), there is love, there are lovers and there are erotic pleasures. While these three sometimes overlap, they are distinct. Over-arching all three, there is a fourth — ethics? convention? society? the world in general? — which imposes a set of rules on behavior. The innocent 20-year-old understands only some of those rules and each time he is exposed to more he discovers that an even more complex set, of which he knows nothing, awaits him.

The two are headed to Mme de T——’s husband’s house. The married couple have been separated for years and negotiating a reconciliation for six months; it turns out that reconciliation is taking place tonight. While the seduction of the narrator is underway, he has no idea what his role is in the grander picture.

The seduction lasts only one evening and, for a short work of fiction, involves an impressive number of settings — the carriage, a meeting with the husband, a grassy bank, a pavilion outside the chateau and finally, the “little room” of painted mirrors (“cabinet” in the French original) off of Madame’s apartment. And after taking the reader carefully through all that, Denon still has a third of the work (albeit only 10 pages) to pull what has happened together. The author himself frames this concluding part in a conversation the youth has with Madame’s lover (as opposed to husband), the Marquis, who arrives on the scene in the morning:

“Well, was it pleasant, my friend? [the Marquis asks] Tell me the details…tell me now.”

“Ah!…Just a minute. I didn’t know that all of this was mere playacting; and even though I am involved in the play…”

“You didn’t have the best part.”

“Oh, don’t worry; for a good actor, there are no bad parts.”

“Of course — and you came off well?”

“Wonderfully well.”

“And Mme de T——-?”

“Sublime. She can play any type.”

Sublime. Play any type. As Brooks notes in the paragraph I quoted, the French have a history of writing this kind of grim, but erotic, fiction that I don’t find anywhere else — and I make no claim to extensive reading of French fiction, even in translation. To the obvious example of Les Liaisons dangereuse that he cites, I would add two novellas reviewed here — Theophile Gautier’s The Jinx (1856) and Paul Morand’s Hecate and Her Dogs. Even with my limited reading, that gives you examples from three centuries, so I would have to say painful erotic fiction is an enduring tradition.

The brevity of the book may discourage some readers from purchasing the volume, although the NYRB version does contain the French version as well for those comfortable in the language (it was beyond my French) and Brooks’ highly readable and worthwhile introduction adds another 26 pages. I will say only that I read it three times before starting this review and will be returning to it again in the future — so it ranks as a more than worthwhile investment from my point of view. I was impressed with all three books cited in the previous paragraph — I am equally impressed by this one.

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18 Responses to “No Tomorrow, by Vivant Denon”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Your priority pile sounds like mine….

    I bought this one following Max’s review. I didn’t want to review it too close after reading his review, and so it moved down the stack, and there it currently resides.

    Do you like Maupassant? I’d recommend a collection of short stories called Butterball.

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    ‘In French fiction of this sort … there is love, there are lovers and there are erotic pleasures. While these three sometimes overlap, they are distinct. Over-arching all three, there is a fourth — ethics? convention? society? the world in general? — which imposes a set of rules on behavior’ – this is brilliant, Kevin, and so true of the French fiction I’ve read so far. Thanks.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: My main Christmas gift this year was a revolving bookshelf-table. So now, in addition to the small bookcase-laptop station that I have had for some time (which holds 40-50 volumes) on one side of my reading chair, I now have eight shelf sections in the revolving table which hold another 80 or so (leaving the top free for pipes, tobacco, an ashtray and room to set my drink). I can only muse about how little time it will take to fill them up. I haven’t read Maupassant since university but my interest has been sparked by a number of blogs (including yours) in recent months. I’ll order Butterball for a space in the new table “waiting” shelves.

    Lisa: Thanks for the compliment. It is interesting that English-language writers tend to concentrate on exploring one or two of the four — the French seem to like to explore the tension between all four of them. While a steady diet of that would leave me exhausted, reading one every couple of months seems a worthwhile goal. Guy’s offered one starting point with Maupassant and I have been curious about Stendhal for a while (I seem to recall you opining on Le Rouge and le Noir somewhere.

  4. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’ve read a bit of Balzac (which I mostly don’t blog because they’re only short stories, I just do them on GoodReads) but I haven’t read Maupassant yet, and only a little Flaubert. I like Stendhal; The Red and the Black was excellent. I’ve had his Charterhouse of Parma in this house lying untouched for the best part of 30 years because in my ignorance I thought it was dross fiction. Thank goodness there is 1001 Books You Must Read to set me straight!

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did think about throwing Madame Bovary in as a comparison as well, but that seemed too obvious. Zola’s Therese Raquin certainly fits the genre as well (and I think is the only one of his works that I have read). I must admit that, as good as the longer novels are (and they are excellent), it is the French ability to carry this theme off in shorter works that I think is particularly distinctive.

  6. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I have missed out on this one and am pleased to read your account of it – it sounds just the thing to fill those little gaps among the socialising of Christmas and New Year. The inventive range of settings is intriguing!

    I read your review of Steve Martin’s book and am surprised to find that he seems to be a capable author as well as a highly talented banjo player!

    I hope you have an inspiring reading year in 2011.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I didn’t know about the banjo playing (just as I wasn’t sure of the art collecting). Martin does seem to be a modern Renaissance Man.

      As for the Denon, I am very glad that I saved it for this time of year — it fit the available reading niche perfectly and I welcomed the opportunity of a challenging distraction.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Glad you enjoyed it Kevin, and it’s good to be reminded of its charms too.

    I have a vast regard for Les Liasons Dangereuses, which I really can’t praise too highly. I also recently enjoyed Butterball of course though those are much later in period.

    It’s the wit and style with which it’s all carried off that wins me, here and in Liiasons. Therese Raquin by contrast I thought flawed, interesting but structurally imbalanced and at times almost tedious.

    Anyway, a good choice of holiday reading. Better than my selection of a David Peace novel was…

  8. Trevor Says:

    I keep meaning to get this one, but, honestly, it had started slipping my mind. Thanks for the refresh, Kevin!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I read Therese Raquin because we had tickets to the National Theatre production a few years ago. I must admit the play was better than the novel — it was a wonderful production. It is probably unfair to compare these novellas to Les Liaisons since it is much more ambitious in every way. Indeed, part of what is so impressive about the novellas (this one and the other two I cite in the review) is that so much is developed in so few pages.

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    I second Max on Therese Raquin. It seems to be a highly-thought of novel, but I think it’s weakened by Zola’s bent on Scientific-Determinism. There are many better Zolas out there.

    I saw the BBC version and thought it was excellent.

  11. anokatony Says:

    1777 – wow, that’s early. I’m adding this to my list to read.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: One of the interesting things that Brooks references in his introduction is how little the tactics and issues of seduction or stolen erotic pleasure have changed, even if some of the tools (e.g. Internet) have. It is a remarkably modern work in that sense.

  13. Trevor Says:

    Okay, I have this in hand and plan to read it on the commute home tonight!

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Make sure you set aside time for a second read — you will appreciate the subtlety even more the second time around.

  15. Trevor Says:

    Simply amazing. Best commute I’ve had in a long time!

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Excellent way to start a new year — well, on the commute anyway.

  17. The Mookse and the Gripes » Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow Says:

    [...] seem sensible to pay full price for something that will only last 30 pages.  But when a few of my favorite book bloggers praise it, and it’s published by one of my favorite [...]

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