No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon—or really, shouldn’t it be “No Tomorrow,” as this is more a short story than anything else—is a small, fine thing, not unlike the figures that grace its cover in the new NYRB edition.* The 1777 erotic tale is clear and precise without being explicit or coarse. It is not even erotic so much as addressed at the idea of eroticism, the story of a libertine affair mature enough to examine the ethics of pleasure, but without removing the pleasure of the affair itself.
I have no complaints about Lydia Davis’s translation, but I think it’s especially wonderful that NYRB has made this a bilingual edition. The much-discussed opening is, I must say, most beautiful in the original, but I don’t think the rest loses much at all. But I’m very pleased to get both in this little volume, and would love to see more of that in future.
Denon has fabulous control: “The night was superb; it revealed things in glimpses, and seemed only to veil them so as to give free rein to the imagination.” The narrator, looking back on a night spent with Madame de T— when he was just twenty years old, perfectly foreshadows how both the evening and the story will unfold. He is whisked off by Mme de T— (though they both have other lovers) to her husband’s chateau, on the night when she reconciles with him after eight years apart. A strange situation to be sure, but Mme de T— is undisturbed and leads the narrator on a stroll, where she first acts coy, talking about his friend the Countess:
“Oh, what power an artful woman has over you! And how happy she is when, in this game, she feigns everything and invests nothing of her own!” Mme de T— accompanied this last pronouncement with a very meaningful sigh. It was a masterful maneuver.
I felt that a blindfold had just been lifted from my eyes, and I didn’t see the new one with which it was replaced. My lover appeared to be the falsest of all women, and I believed to have found a sensitive soul.
Well, I hardly need to tell you what all that means. Or where it goes. But how lovely. And how well it all matches the mannered, eighteenth century world Denon and his creatures inhabit.
Our narrator begs us to remember that he was only twenty years old, implying that he knows better now, before telling us of more of his missteps.
We even dared to jest about the pleasures of love, distinguishing moral pleasures from others, reducing them to their simplest forms, and proving that love’s favors were nothing more than pleasure; that there was no such thing as a commitment (philosophically speaking) except for those commitments contracted with the public, when we allow it to discover our secrets, and when we agree to share in some indiscretions.
But Mme de T—, no matter what the light of the next morning may bring, is “decent,” cannot lose her dignity in the narrator’s eyes. What does he really think of the ethics of pleasure, then—and when there is point de lendemain, “point de questions, point de résistance” and—a moral?—“point“?**
*Please, someone, what is the cover art?
**The French title of the novella is Point de lendemain (“no tomorrow”), the kind of thing that leaves you looking for more “point”s all over. Here we have “no questions, no resistance” and simply “none,” when the narrator finally asks himself what the, erm, point of it all was.
Thanks to NYRB and LibraryThing for an advance review copy of No Tomorrow.