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?”
“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.