October 9, 2009
Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow
Back in the mid-1990s, when novella trumpeters such as Pushkin Press and Melville House were not yet born, the grandaddy of cheap paperbacks Penguin quietly issued a series called Syrens. (So quietly, alas, that they quickly disappeared without trace.) These were slim paperbacks with plain covers in contrasting colours, covering a wide range of fiction, poetry and essays such as Kafka’s Aphorisms, Beckett’s Modern Love First Love, Hardy’s Poems 1912-13, and less well known titles by writers including Proust, Wilde, Voltaire and Perec. I noticed recently that two titles have now been issued by NYRB Classics: Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos Letter, and this book. My acquisitive nature meant that I picked up most of the Syrens titles at the time, but still haven’t read many of them. Fourteen years from purchase to reading must be a record even for me.
No Tomorrow (Point de lendemain, 1777) was first published anonymously, though its author, born Francois Dominique Vivant de Non, was no self-effacing recluse. The introduction to the Syrens edition tells me that, with interests in art, antiquities and the theatre, he became a favourite of Louis XV and travelled on official service to Russia and Italy as Baron Denon. Returning to revolutionary France, he astutely dropped his title and, before ingratiating himself into Napoleon’s service, survived by his engravings of official uniforms and obscene etchings. This combination of interests in social status and the erotic arts are perfectly preserved in this, his only work of fiction. (Its skimpy length – 38 small pages in the Syrens edition – makes it hard even for a novella publisher to justify as a standalone work. NYRB get around this by presenting a dual language edition.)
Denon was 30 when he wrote No Tomorrow, but his narrator is a mere boy of 20. Nonetheless, the qualities that made one academic sum up Denon in the phrase ”hedonist and scholar” are clearly present in the fiction. It opens with what Milan Kundera praised as “the playful elegance of repetition in the first paragraph of one of the loveliest pieces of French prose.”
I doted on the Countess ______; I was twenty, and I was naive; she deceived me, I was incensed; she deserted me. I was naive, I missed her; I was twenty, she forgave me; and because I was twenty, was naive, and, though still deceived, no longer deserted, I believed that lover was never more loved than I and I was therefore the happiest man alive.
But this dizzying opening – I had to reread it a couple of times – is deceptive. The Countess does not feature in the story. Instead, our hero’s journey begins when he encounters her friend, Madame de T____, in the theatre. “‘I see,’ she said, ‘that I shall have to rescue you from your solitary splendour. You look quite ridiculous all alone. Like patience upon a monument!’”
Through subtlety and sleight of hand, Madame de T_____ persuades the young man to accompany her home, where she is to meet with her estranged husband. “I was afraid that I should be dreadfully bored alone in his company.” Finally, left alone, they fall to the inevitable:
Now, kisses are like secrets. One leads to another, they quicken, they grow more heated by the process of accumulation. And so it proved now. The first had scarcely been given when a second followed, then a third, each crowding closely on the heels of the one before, interrupting our talk and then replacing it entirely, until at last they hardly left any path for our sighs to escape by.
The story proceeds by further passion and subterfuge, a slinky, cynical treat. Hedonism and libertinage are the order of the day: no tomorrow! (Though an earlier English edition translated the title, oddly, as Never again!) Madame urges her boy to believe in “the power of pleasure, our sole guide and only excuse!”, while he seeks an emotional crutch for this new love affair, fearing that “unbridled passion murders niceness of feeling. We run toward pleasure and ride roughshod over the delights which precede it. A ribbon is snapped, a bodice is ripped: desire leaves its mark in its wake and soon the idol of our heart looks uncommonly like its victim.” However he, by cuckolding his own mistress, is a player here as much as a victim.
It is only later, when he is permitted to enter into her highly symbolic “secret chamber”, that our young man learns just how ruthless Madame can be. At one point, as she initiates him in the rituals of cynical love, he “felt that a blindfold had been removed from my eyes, but failed to observe that a new one had been put in its place.” Blindfolds and masks are worn by all the players in this society, so concerned with surface that they decline to acknowledge their own feelings. David Coward, in an introduction to his translation in this Syrens edition, calls it “a masterpiece, as clear and self-confident as a line etched on glass with a very sharp diamond.” With its beautiful prose, seductive eroticism, precociously mannered methods, and clever ending, No Tomorrow itself resembles its central femme fatale, about whom another of her lovers cheerfully tells the hero: “She provokes, she arouses, but she feels nothing herself: that woman is a block of marble.”