No Tomorrow, by Vivant Denon
Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow is a pretty much perfect slice of literature. Less than 30 pages long, it’s elegantly written, glitteringly amoral and utterly sensuous. When I finished it, I restarted and read it again, it’s that good.
Vivant Denon was a courtier in the court of Louis XV, then later an associate of Napoleon and a director of the Louvre. A survivor then. He was an accomplished artist, but only wrote one work of fiction, this one, a solitary achievement so astonishing that for much of its life it has been attributed to other writers. How, after all, could a man write such a work and yet nothing else?
First published back in 1777 (though this is a translation of the slightly revised 1812 edition), No Tomorrow is the tale of how a young man of just 20 is seduced at the opera by an older woman, taken back to her husband’s estate with whom she is seeking to effect a reconciliation, spends a night with her and then in the morning is sent on his way – though not before meeting her other lover. It is a story of brief pleasures, fleeting love and of the delicate blend of artifice, wit and desire that characterises the Ancien Régime.
No Tomorrow drips with style, it’s written with both elan and subtlety, here is the opening paragraph:
I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de ______ ; I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old, she forgave me, and, because I was twenty years old, because I was naive – still deceived, but no longer abandoned, I thought myself to be the best-loved lover, and therefore the happiest of men. She was a friend of Mme de T______, who seemed to have some designs on me yet did not wish to compromise her dignity. As we shall see, Mme de T______ possessed certain principles of decency to which she was scrupulously attached.
The narrator clearly is no longer twenty, there is a cool detachment here, a knowingness. As Peter Brooks points out in a truly excellent foreword, that he was deceived does not necessarily mean he was not best-loved, not the happiest of men. Honesty, so important to modern conceptions of relationships (it certainly is to my concept of them), is here at best an optional extra, at worst vulgar.
No Tomorrow charts the narrators seduction by Mme de T______, and it was only on my second reading I saw how utterly she controls the entire process, how every opportunity seized by her young lover is provided to him, how artifice begets chance. It follows their initial brief contacts, leaning together in a carriage, to their stroll arm in arm along a river, to their eventual (and inevitable) sexual encounters.
Nothing here is explicit, and yet everything is. It’s clear that when first they have sex it is in a rush of passion, then with the initial frenzy spent the second time they are longer in their pleasures, taking time over each other. Denon describes it all, without once directly showing the act itself. The result is a novel that is erotic, yet never pornographic. Equally, although nothing here is innocent, pleasure here is shared rather than at the expense of others (as in Liasons Dangereuse) and so there is an almost celebratory air to the whole work.
As you’d expect, Denon is a fantastically witty writer. Lines such as:
The moon was setting, and its last rays soon lifted the veil of a modesty that was, I think, becoming rather tiresome.
are hard not to adore. Equally, the dialogue is at times superb, the sequence when the narrator discusses Mme de T______ with her normal lover is viciously barbed and beautifully layered in meanings. Really, could any comment be so innocuous and so insulting as the following:
But, I must say, you seem to know this woman as well as if you were her husband: really, one could easily be deceived.
I’ve avoided saying too much about this work, after all, “Discretion is the most important of the virtues; we owe it many moments of happiness”. Although by its nature it isn’t really susceptible to spoilers, it is a masterpiece (a term I do not often use) and if you haven’t read it you deserve the chance to discover it for yourself.
I was introduced to No Tomorrow by The Asylum, here, John brings out points in his last two paragraphs that I haven’t repeated here, but definitely agree with. On reading John’s review I was initially concerned that £7.95 ($12.95) was excessive for a tale so short, I was wrong. Literature is not measured by breadth. And, for the record, John also right about the cover, it does fit the book.
The NYRB edition of No Tomorrow is translated by Lydia Davis. If you head over to John’s blog, you’ll see that he reviewed a different translation. We both quote the opening paragraph, so you can directly compare the two. I have to admit, I struggle to see how Davis’s translation could be bettered, and it’s becoming apparent to me I should pay more attention to the NYRB Classics range than to date I have.
By way of close, if No Tomorrow isn’t one of my favourite books of 2010 come the end of December, I shall have had a very good year.