Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow

I kept holding out on buying Vivant Denon’s only literary work, a novella — no, a short story — because it didn’t seem sensible to 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 was about. Now I know: it may be that the story is only 30 pages (though in the NYRB Classics edition, the book also contains the original French and an excellent 20 page introduction by Peter Brooks), but No Tomorrow (Point de Lendemain, 1777, revised in 1812; tr. from the French by Lydia Davis, 1997) will be read again and again. It gives a reward several times that of a new, expensive, 800 page hardback.

The story itself is fairly simple. Our narrator is looking back to his youth at a particularly pleasurable night he passed with a marvelous woman. I’m sure you can guess why it was so pleasurable. The next morning, he leaves, never to encounter the woman again — at least, not . . . err . . . in the same way. The magic of the story is the vim of the style and the way that style presents the machinations going on under the text. Here is how the story begins:

I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de — ; I was twenty years old and I was naïve. 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.

That clipped, clear, succinct, moving introduction is brilliantly translated by Lydia Davis (another reason I need to revisit Madame Bovary now that she’s put her translation out there; oh, and it is also the reason I jumped up and got her collection of short stories). As succinct as it is, though, we hear three times that the narrator was twenty years old and three times that he was naïve. It’s a great passage into the mind of the older narrator who is mocking his youth at the same time as he envies it. These three sentences are a marvel of construction.

Comtesse de — , our narrator’s deceitful lover, is friends with Mme de T — . One evening, our narrator meets Mme de T — at the opera. When she sees him, she begins the game:

A divine hand must have led you here. You don’t by any chance have plans for this evening? I warn you, they would be pointless.

One can read this story as a straight line from Point A (the Opera) to Point B (the Night), and it is still a fantastic story, a seductive bit of erotic literature that is highly literate, just a pleasure to read:

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.

But this story is much more than that straight line between Point A and Point B. Mme de T — tells the narrator to accompany her to her estranged husband’s house for dinner. During the course of the meal, the husband is visibly angered at the youth his wife has invited, but he praises his wife’s foresight. It’s good she invited a friend since he would be retiring early that night.

The game continues, and, as the evening progresses, Denon’s story ventures into the nature of lust and passion and just what an intimate connection between two people means. And also how to get the most out of it:

When lovers are too ardent, they are less refined. Racing toward climax, they overlook the preliminary pleasures: they tear at a knot, shred a piece of gauze. Lust leaves its traces everywhere, and soon the idol resembles a victim.

Again, though, there is much more to this story than meets the eye, and a couple of rereads continues to reveal the subtleties in the text and the true game that is being played. This short book is not to be missed.

I recommend reading the blog reviews I linked to above. John Self read a different translation, and I think the strengths of Lydia Davis’s translation are apparent when comparing the first paragraph of his text to the first paragraph here. All three showcase different strengths from this superb story.

21 thoughts on “Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow

  1. Wonderful isn’t it? I’m glad you read it and enjoyed it.

    But of course NYRB Classics. When they print something as brief as this, one should know there’ll be good reason.

    I hadn’t connected this with the new Madame Bovary. That really excites me, as this was a wonderful piece of translation and Madame Bovary is probably (and unoriginally) my favourite novel.

    If I recall correctly this made one of my top ten (or whatever number it was) of the year lists. It still shines in my memory. Just tremendous.

    NYRB Classics really are a badge of quality these days. I don’t think I’ve yet been steered wrong by them. For me they’re up there with Pushkin Press, which is high praise as far as I’m concerned.

  2. Emily says:

    Sounds wonderful. I feel like I rediscovered the short story er novella when I recently read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I generally do away with the short reads because I feel like it is rarely done well. However, in my habits I forget that when a short is done well, it can be done very well. Like I said, The Awakening was my awakening, I’ll be checking this out soon.

  3. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I was turned onto short stories as an undergrad because Leslie Norris taught at BYU. The mood of his work really hit me. Prior to him, I had similar perspectives as Emily on the short story.
    If you’re looking for other great short stories, Emily, I would absolutely recommend Yukio Mishima (also written up on mookse). It’s not just fantastic writing, but a look into another culture.
    Finally, I would recommend clicking on your name (Emily again) to see where it links you to. I actually laughed out loud when I saw it. Thanks for the warning?

  4. Trevor says:

    Wow, Emily! Evangelizing on my blog — I get the hint. No more erotic literature for me. In which case, I cannot endorse Mrs. Berrett’s Yukio Mishima recommendation (though I certainly do — here). (By the way, if you’d like me to fix your link, I certainly can — but perhaps its best to keep it as a warning to lost souls.)

    For other shorties, I recommend Aira’s Ghosts and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, both clocking in at around 100 pages. J.M. Coetzee’s books are fairly short and lively. Both Penelope Fitzgerald and Muriel Spark pack a wicked bit into a small space. And, my favorite young short story writer, Maile Meloy, of course.

    Now, I have to finally read The Awakening, which I’ve been putting off for years.

  5. I know this is totally irrelevant, but when does a short story become a novella?

    From my perspective, it has more to do with the complexity of structure (so No Tomorrow is a novella, despite its short length) that it has to do with length.

    But I would be interested in what your thoughts are.

  6. Also….

    Shouldn’t Mrs. Berrett update her gravatar? For some of us, these are key indicators of the “growing up” of the family.

  7. Mrs. Berrett says:

    My options with both boys in them are slim. Somehow they (the boys) always end up wrestling. This will have to do.

  8. Isabel says:

    Happy 2011.

    Another book to tempt me. I’ll try to find it

  9. Trevor says:

    I know this is totally irrelevant, but when does a short story become a novella?

    From my perspective, it has more to do with the complexity of structure (so No Tomorrow is a novella, despite its short length) that it has to do with length.

    Interesting question, Kevin. I have always imagined the difference between a short story, a novella, and a novel to be matters of length, and argument ensues in the gray areas between. I would have thought that the complexity of structure was incidental to length. Of course, now you have me looking at No Tomorrow and thinking, hmmmm, not so fast. So I guess it might be useful to look at the attributes usual to a short story and those usual to a novella.

    Short story: Intense focus, limited setting, limited characters, limited perspective.

    Novella: I am having a hard time listing attributes of the novella that aren’t just “less intense focuse than short story,” “less limited setting,” ect. or that isn’t just a negative attribute of the novel.

    So I guess I’m left thinking it might still be a length thing, and that any “extra” is incidental to the length. For example, I just finished Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener the other day, and it has only a few characters, one perspective, and is very unified, but it is certainly not a short story because of that. Bartleby does share with No Tomorrow a certain explosion of themes that can be explored, but I think many short stories do, too.

    Hmmm, I’m trying to convince myself that it is something besides the still arbitrary notion of length, and I’m not sure I’m getting anywhere. I’ll try to regroup — and, of course, any response will only help me in that regard.

  10. Trevor says:

    Isabel: you won’t be sorry!

  11. I am inclined to agree with you — the terms are descriptive, most useful in indicating length. Somewhere (I’d say at about 35 pages) a short story morphs into a novella and later on (say about 120 pages) becomes a novel. Your descriptions are useful but, as you muse on, they also become a bit of a trap — great short story writers use that focus to subtly open much wider vistas. I’d say it is best to regard the terms as adjectives, not useful categories.

  12. leroyhunter says:

    This debate got me thinking…is it something to do with how the piece is presented? ie a shory story is typically part of a collection, whereas a novella stands alone? Of course, these are generalisations and you still have to address the length issue.

    My only criticism of Melville House’s excellent novella series is the inclusion of The Dead: to me, it can never be a novella, it’s a key part of another book which is of course a collection of stories.

  13. Trevor says:

    Just to keep the discussion going, leroy, what would you call “The Dead”? If your concern is whether “The Dead” should be read independently of the remainder of Dubliners, then would calling it a short story change anything, since people pick and choose which stories in a collection to read as well? I certainly believe that Dubliners is a connected collection, of which “The Dead” is an integral part, but I do enjoy reading them as individual pieces, too. Plus, quite a few collections of stories contain both short stories and novellas, connected or not.

    Incidentally, I italicize novella titles when they are stand-alone pieces but put in quotes titles that are part of a collection (and I admit I usually think of them as short stories). But, again, following my rambling logic above, I guess I come down to the not-so-satisfying idea that these terms are at best indications of length and nothing else. Any other attributes they seem to hold categorically are incidental to their length, though not limited to a certain length.

  14. leroyhunter says:

    No, you’re right to point out it changes nothing Trevor, and this debate (while interesting!) is really hair-splitting and probably redundant.

    I’m just so used to thinking of Dubliners as “the piece of work” that extracting one element to stand alone seems strange, like publishing as episode of Ulysses as a one-off.

    Reading back, Kevin’s suggested page-lengths seem about right as definitions…while accepting nothing can be hard-and-fast.

  15. Trevor says:

    No, you’re right to point out it changes nothing Trevor, and this debate (while interesting!) is really hair-splitting and probably redundant.

    Yes, but I once interrupted a really interesting debate on John Self’s blog to post a comment explaining why my use of the word “admit” in a prior comment was appropriate. Incredibly petty! Particularly in light of the larger, much more interesting, coversation: here. I like to go off on tangents I guess.

    Here’s a tangent, one of Melville House’s novellas is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which I’ve never considered to be a novella. I spent years with that novel. Still, I’m happy to see it in these nice editions.

    And on to another tangent: What pieces of larger works can you think of that have been published independently?

    Off the top of my head:

    “The Grand Inquisitor,” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is often published and read independently.

    William Trevor’s Reading Turgenev is one of the novellas that makes up Two Lives, but only it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1991. I haven’t read either novella, so I’m not sure how (or if) they really work together.

  16. Okay, the entire debate is pedantic and I should never have started it. Then again, now I know why I should never have started it.

  17. Trevor says:

    Well, I enjoyed thinking about it; of course, I’m a bit pedantic — or is that why you’re saying you should never have started it??

    Regardless of the outcome of the debate, it remains clear this book is worth every penny, a superior read regardless of its formal category.

  18. I was pretty sure you would rise to the bait. Which you did.

    The obvious conclusion is that there is no relationship between length and quality. But we knew that before anyway.

  19. leroyhunter says:

    Fair points, Trevor. Personally I’m not keen on “bits” of longer works being presented in this way, but I can see how (eg) those neat little Penguin series (Great Loves, Great Thoughts etc) can give people a way into otherwise bulky or daunting texts.

    Kevin: the sum of human knowledge hasn’t advanced, but sometimes isn’t the debate worth it itself?

  20. Scott W. says:

    I’m headed over to dig this out of the library now, thank you. I’m struck by the remarkable similarity of the first passage you quote to a similar passage in Isak Dinesen’s “The Old Chevalier.”

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