Kisses are like confidences: they attract each other, they accelerate each other, they excite each other

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.

No Tomorrow

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25 Comments

Filed under 18th Century Literature, Denon, Vivant, French Literature, Novellas, Short Stories

25 responses to “Kisses are like confidences: they attract each other, they accelerate each other, they excite each other

  1. This is a treasure of a review and I am only sorry that it was not posted an hour or two earlier so I could have added the book to today’s order. As it is, it has been placed on the list for the next one.

    I can’t help but think that those of us who were raised as English speakers missed something about…sex…when we read literature like this. Victorian? I don’t think so. Pre-Chatterly? No, I don’t think that either. Just not in the mix, I would say — and North American examples are even worse.

    I’ll admit that 30-page volumes are a bit much even for my non price-sensitive tastes. Thanks for putting me on to this one. I’ll report back once I have undertaken the time-consuming task of reading it.

  2. Thanks Max. I have this one at home on my shelf, so I will have to get around to it.

    One of my goals is to read more from NYRB this year. Just in case you didn’t know, they have an e-mail sign up so you can get the latest news about releases. NYRB matches (in my opinion) Pushkin Press in their selection of those they select to reprint. There are a number of 2010 releases I look forward to.

    Three other spectacular NYRB editions = Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar, The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott, and A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien.

    Just writing those titles makes me want to re-read ’em.

    One of my favourites for 2009 was Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home.

  3. leroyhunter

    Lovely review Max. I nearly picked this off the TBR pile the other day, but chose The Girl With the Golden Eyes instead; I also heard of Denon via The Asylum and am looking forward to polishing off this little morsel. The comparison with Balzac will be interesting; the more reason to read No Tomorrow while the former is still fresh in mind.

    I also wanted to second Guy’s praise for NYRB in general (and A Way of Life Like Any Other specifically). Their choices and design are difficult to fault, there’s some really interesting and challenging stuff in their list that would likely be lost otherwise. My first taste was their edition of Bioy Casares’ Invention of Morel, which I must admit I was shallow enough to buy primarily because of the cover pic of Louise Brooks.

  4. Nick

    Just bought it for 3,80EUR. In french.

    Thks for the recommandation. Great review.
    I’m checking the NYRB now.

  5. Kevin,

    Have you read Tom Jones? Pre the Victorians, the English speaking world was bawdier than we are today if anything, Gulliver’s Travels gets pretty racy in places too.

    Of course, none of that compares to the writers of the Ancien Regime, but then this was a subject they gave a lot of detailed thought to…

    I know you sometimes read works twice before blogging them, this I think repays that.

    Guy, I didn’t know about the mailing list, I’ll sign up for it. They really weren’t on my radar particularly, matching Pushkin Press? That’s high praise.

    I recall you writing about the Benatar (tragically, a name I forever associate with Pat). The other two don’t ring bells, have you blogged them? Have I simply forgotten (entirely possible)?

    Regarding Balzac, I’ve read very little so far, something I should correct. Louise Brooks incidentally is reason enough to buy any book.

    Nick, let us know your thoughts, indeed I hope to hear all your thoughts whether here or at The Asylum or over at your own blogs. That said, I’d be particularly interested Nick to hear how it reads in the original French.

  6. Hello Max: yes all three reviews are on my blog. Two are older shorter reviews w/no long quotes. I’d like to re-do them one day.

  7. Where is Nick’s blog? Just bought a dual-language edition of Maupassant’s short stories. Working on getting that French back….

  8. Nick

    Sirs,

    I’m sorry to disappoint (?) you but I don’t hold a blog. There are several reasons for this:
    – it is highly time consuming and I am, let’s face it, too lazy for it and prefer to allocate my free time to reading (and other activities)
    – I don’t possess the necessary literary and analytic skills, let alone the culture, to produce a blog of quality as yours are (Asylum, Futile and Perchorin).

    So yes, I am just a parasite feeding on your great work. And I thank you for that, and taking the time to answer my stupid comments.

    However, I’ll make sure to let you know what I thought of the books you are commenting once I’ve read them, which, in the particular case of No tomorrow, won’t be soon since it will be delivered at my home, while I’m ‘stuck’ in Macedonia for the next four months.

    I’ve got to admit that reading your blogs of course made me think of hosting my own but I have yet to start taking notes on the books I’m reading. Which makes me wonder: do you take notes while reading or come back to a book a while after, or a combination of these two methods?

    Nick

  9. I shall print them off today and (re)read them Guy. I recall the Benatar, I’m curious to see what you have to say about the others.

    The Denon is a dual language edition too by the way.

    Nick, comments are always welcome. What’s Macedonia like? I understand parts of it are extremely scenic, but if you’re there on business you’re probably not in those parts…

    I vary on notes, nowadays I make notes as I go along but all I note is page refs for quotes I may use, I don’t note anything else (it would break up the book too much). I’m not even sure how good an idea that is, it tends to lead to more quotes than if I didn’t do it – all too often there’s just too many good ones and really there’s no need for that many in the actual blog post.

  10. Post it notes work for me.

  11. Nick

    Macedonia is beautiful, especially in autumn, but I’ve heard spring is nice too. My job actually involves visiting some municipalities in Macedonia and as they are quite scattered, I’ve already enjoyed most of the landscape. It’s mainly consisted of mountains and hills and looks a little like South of France with vines and olive-trees and lakes.

    There is not much to do or visit but if you enjoy relaxing vacations it is perfect. To be relaxed is actually mandatory since things are on the slow side here.

    The capital (Skopje) has an awful look (except if you enjoy communist architecture) but is quite pleasant to live in.

    Macedonia is probably one of the safest places in the world (that’s why most people have never heard of it) and is quite interesting culturally because it mixes Orthodox influences and Ottoman’s ones.

    As the government is currently trying its best to impose its own Macedonian identity, by rejecting the Ottoman heritage, Islam and all Macedonian-Albanians, it is an interesting place to live in, which you probably already suspect since you’ve read Mark Mazower’s The Balkans.

    The society here is evolving since they have to adapt to our wonderful capitalist model from a socialist one, especially if they want to join the EU. You can thus meet very different mentalities throughout the Macedonian population: from the young entrepreneurial sharks to the old calm socialists, including those of the sacrificed generation who have never been able to benefit from the socialist regime (harsh times) and who cannot adjust to the new one.

  12. Nick, thank you very much, that’s very interesting. I had heard similar before, but from the Macedonian embassy when I had to attend a reception once there (that line gives a very misleading impression of my life…) and that wasn’t the most independent of sources.

    It’s a shame they’re trying to create an identity, but I suppose the issue they have is that they’re such a young country it wouldn’t take much for them to cease to be one at all. It’s interesting to see that happening today, there’s been plenty of historical examples of the planned creation of a national identity (Italy springs to mind), but few so current.

  13. I wanted to add that NYRB has a few Zweig novels in print:
    The Post Office Girl
    Chess Story
    & Beware of Pity

  14. leroyhunter

    Max, I read this the other evening and it certainly is an elegant little thing. You’re right to highlight the intro to the NYRB edition; Denon is a wonderful character, almost too good to be true. Interesting to read that a “hard-core” version (not by Denon) followed the success of the original publication.
    One thing that struck me is that the climax (pun intended) of the Balzac I mentioned above occurs in a similarly exotic secret chamber; an architectural feature that in our own time seems to have mutated into the ‘panic room’. Worse luck us, I’d say.
    One of the best qualities displayed by the narrator is his lack of regret, due, as you mention, to his lack of innocent expectation. Do you think, though, that he is aware of how skillfully he is being lead? It wasn’t clear to me on this first reading.
    A final point: when I read The Girl With the Golden Eyes last week, I thought the claims made for it by Melville’s blurb were overblown; now, comparing it to Denon, I can see that it is deeply uncivilised and decadent.

  15. Nick

    As it happens identity is also a great question for France…. well the government tried to make a great debate out of it, without much success, but has taken the opportunity to tighten the laws on immigration and on religions ‘tolerance’ all the same. In France we’re so tolerant of each other’s religion that religious signs (veils, crosses… of course crosses actually get a better treatment) are forbidden in schools. We’ve also increased the number of flags, which they have also done in Macedonia.

    France’s fight for identity, and thus against Islam, is still much softer than the Macedonian one, who are constructing an orthodox church in the middle of the country’s main square. But maybe it’s because we’ve already got plenty of churches everywhere.
    It reminds me of the Swiss ban on new minarets.

    There is a fair number of people (at least internationals) who believe Macedonia, as a country, will soon disappear… Maybe the Macedonian government is not that wrong about trying to create an national identity.

    But back to books; this is not really the place for such a debate.

  16. In respect of Macedonia, I haven’t the knowledge to debate it anyway. Thanks for filling me in, it may be off topic for the blog, but it was interesting.

  17. Pingback: Objects in the rearview mirror… | Pechorin’s Journal

  18. Max, thanks to you this book has another admirerer. I read it tonight on the commute home, and I can’t think of another commute that has passed with so much pleasure. What an exceptional work!

  19. Excellent! I look forward to reading your thoughts Trevor.

  20. Pingback: The Mookse and the Gripes » Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow

  21. Max: Just found a FREE version of this for the kindle.

    This was made into THE LOVERS a louis Malle film with a voiceover by Louise de Vilmorin (Madame de)

  22. Very nice Guy. Let me know what you think.

    A voiceover by Louise de Vilmorin. How very appropriate.

  23. Fabulous stuff, Max! You had me with the title of your post. That and your opening comments on it being ‘elegantly written, glitteringly amoral and utterly sensuous.’ Interesting you should mention Les Liaisons Dangereuses as it came to mind as I was reading the opening paragraphs of your review. I’m on a book-buying ban at the moment (until I read twenty from my tbr), but I’ll put the Denon at the top of my wishlist.

    Reading the comments, I can only echo the praise for NYRB titles. Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding and Transit by Anna Seghers are two of the best books I’ve read this year, and I have the Darcy O’Brien — the one that Guy mentions — in my TBR. I seem to hit it off with NYRB and Pushkin Press – thanks for recommending this.

  24. Liaisons is marvellous I think, and this definitely fits that world.

    Good luck with the 20! This does make a lovely little palate cleanser if you need one.

    NYRB are amazing aren’t they? Cassandra and Transit are both on my radar. I note you didn’t mention Speedboat, is that just chance or do you rate those two higher?

    I’ve reviewed the Darcy O’Brien myself, I read it after reading Guy’s review. It’s a really nice book, warm and affectionate. I really liked it.

  25. Oh, Speedboat’s great too, but in a completely different way to Cassandra and Transit. I loved Renata Adler’s writing – she’s one of those writers that you want to follow just to see where she leads you despite the lack of a clear narrative thread. Have you read Open City by Teju Cole? Adler’s writing reminded me a little of that book. Oddly enough though, I can recall little of the detail in Speedboat other than a handful of vignettes and the underlying feeling of unease and weariness (which I read as a reflection of the political mood in America at the time). Cassandra and Transit will stay with me for longer, I think.

    You’ve read and reviewed the Darcy O’Brien, too? Great to hear that you liked it and I’m glad it made it through the door before my book-buying ban came into effect. I look forward to reading it!

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