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.