October 9, 2009

Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow

Posted in Denon Vivant, NYRB Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

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.

Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow (Penguin Syrens)

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!'”

Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow (NYRB Classics)

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.”

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26 Comments »

  1. That’ll be Beckett’s *First* Love!

    • John Self said,

      D’oh! :oops:

      They also publish George Meredith’s Modern Love. I got all conflationary.

      Thanks for the correction Steve!

  2. JRSM said,

    Right, I’ll have to get this! I’d never even heard of these Siryns–they must have never appeared in Australia, or else I would have been all over them.

  3. John Self said,

    Well you were probably just a babe in arms then, JRSM. Sadly many of them are hideously expensive now on Amazon Marketplace: they were priced at £2.99 when first published.

    In case the link in my above post stops working, the complete list of Syrens is, I think, as follows:

    Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying
    Gerard de Nerval, Sylvie
    Voltaire, Micromegas
    Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow
    Georges Perec, The Winter Journey (I wanted to reproduce this one in its entirety on my blog – it’s only 2,000 words long – but couldn’t secure the rights)
    Samuel Beckett, First Love
    Franz Kafka, The Complete Aphorisms
    Marcel Proust, On Reading
    George Meredith, Modern Love
    Karl Miller, Boswell and Hyde
    von Kleist, Baudelaire, Rilke, Essays on Dolls
    Thomas Hardy, Poems 1912-13
    William Wordsworth, The Two-Part Prelude (1799)
    Hugo von Hoffmansthal, The Lord Chandos Letter
    Jonathan Swift, Directions to Servants
    James Fenton, On Statues
    Gustave Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas
    Charles Baudelaire, Intimate Journals

    I have all but the last three. Amazon also lists a handful which I don’t think were ever actually published: Gerard de Nerval’s The Chimeras, Georg Buchner’s Lenz, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Elizabeth Bowen’s Seven Winters: Memoir of a Dublin Childhood. As you can see, several are available online, but it would be nice to have them in that compact paperback edition.

  4. nicole said,

    I’ve been waiting very impatiently to get the NYRB edition of this, and now I feel sure I’m going to love it.

  5. John Self said,

    Well it’s out next week in the US, nicole, or next month in the UK. Do let me know what you think of it when it arrives.

  6. Deb said,

    So, this solves the mystery of where the term “bodice ripper” originated.

  7. John Self said,

    Hey there’s a thought, Deb! According to one source, the first recorded use of the term was in 1980, but that was in the context of using it as a derogatory term for romance novel. Or did Denon’s translator here use the words knowingly, even if it wasn’t a literal translation? I suppose we would need to see the NYRB dual language edition to be sure…

  8. Deb said,

    Or did Denon’s translator here use the words knowingly, even if it wasn’t a literal translation?

    Possibly, but doesn’t that seem a bit too pop culture-y and “meta” on the part of the translator? Sadly, my French is not adequate to the task of determining what the original says. Perhaps someone will illuminate us.

  9. John Self said,

    I’ve asked someone at NYRB Classics how it’s rendered in their translation. Then again, they say that their translation of the opening paragraph is “much much better” than the one quoted above. So who knows if we can trust them? ;-)

    • Trevor said,

      I was going through my old review of this, John, in order to post some thoughts on Palimpsest and remembered that you’d read a different translation. I know it’s been, er, three years since you posted this, but here are Lydia Davis’s translation of the two quotes you pulled out:

      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.

      And the kisses:

      Kisses are like confidences: they attract each other, they accelerate each other, they excite each other. In fact, I had barely received the first kiss when a second followed upon its heels, and then another: their pace quickened, interrupting and then replacing the conversation. Soon they scarcely left us time to sigh. Silence fell all around us. We heard it (for one sometimes hears silence), and we were frightened. We stood up without saying a word and began to walk again.

      I’m a big fan of the Davis translation. She has an ear for the rhythm and sound of the words that really fits the wimsy of the story.

      Anyway . . . carry on.

  10. Sara said,

    ok, I have posted a few comparisons, as well as the original French, on our blog. See if you can find your bodice there.

    http://bit.ly/48O9YN

  11. Deb said,

    on arrache un nœud, on déchire une gaze:

    Nary a bodice in sight; so, it appears that the translator did just use the term as a pop culture reference. I wonder if there are other examples of this sort of thing in the book. Did you notice any?

    Thanks for going above and beyond, John & Sara.

  12. Reading the review, I was reminded of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, so I went off to see the year of the de Laclos novel–1782.
    Anyway, sounds as though this would be something I’d enjoy.

  13. Just read that Balzac loved this novella. That does it for me

  14. anokatony said,

    John, you may be interested in my latest posting.

  15. John Self said,

    Good call, Guy – the intro to my edition also compares it with Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Hope you enjoy it. (My copy of Madame de arrived last week, by the way.)

  16. [...] Wait to review an obscure book for long enough and it may eventually come back into print. Peter [...]

  17. I was reminded of the Laclos as well, and since the Laclos is one of my favourite novels of all time (I don’t keep a list, but if I did it would be on it) this is a definite must buy.

    I’m trying to cut back on my purchases John, you’re not helping here. Could you not review more multi-hundred page historical epics? My bank manager would thank you.

    On another note, I’ve picked up Madame de too, really looking forward to it and to your thoughts on it when you get to it.

  18. Oh, I preferred the Syrens cover by the way, the NYRB one seems a bit cluttered and obvious. Not sure about the dual language aspect either, are there that many readers who want both? I suspect most are happy with English or French, it’s a bit of an obvious way to keep the price up.

  19. John Self said,

    Having read the book, Max, I think the NYRB cover does a pretty good job of representing the ‘chamber’ into which Madame de T____ invites the narrator. As for the dual language edition, I suspect it’s not (just) to keep the price up, but the page count – otherwise it would be less than 50 pages long, hardly enough to give the poor book a spine. (Denon didn’t write any other fiction, so it can’t even be lumped in with other titles, as they did with the even shorter Lord Chandos Letter of Hugo von Hoffmansthal.)

  20. I’m too much of a cynic John, clearly, it’s what I get for posting when tired. I’ve ordered it, I’m glad to hear the NYRB cover is good at representing the chamber, that does help with it.

    Definitely looking forward to this one, it sounds a lot of fun, I often buy books I see on other people’s blogs, but not usually within five minutes of finishing the blog entry.

  21. Nick said,

    From the little excerpt on the publisher’s site, I prefer Syrens’ translation. It is maybe less accurate but it seems much more lively and pleasant reading.

    I had never heard of this work before, so thank you John. It sounds gorgeous.
    The author’s name is quite remarkable too.

  22. [...] 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 [...]

  23. [...] 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. [...]

  24. […] 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 publishers, I had to see what the fuss […]


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