September 2009

Michele Filgate

fiction

No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon, translated by Lydia Davis

If only the art of seduction was as sophisticated, albeit naive, in modern times as it was in classic works of literature. In our ADD, short-attention span conflicted culture, we're so busy trying to impress others with the wittiest status update on Facebook that we neglect to slow down and enjoy the finer pleasures of life -- like flirtation.

In Vivant Denon's No Tomorrow, recently translated by Lydia Davis and published by the New York Review of Books, it's easy to feel the sexual tension between Madame de T-- and the twenty-year-old unnamed narrator. This "novel" (and if it's indeed considered a novel, it has to be the shortest novel ever written; a whopping 30 pages) takes place in one evening, as the Madame de T-- and her chosen lover for the evening discuss sensual pleasures. She is a friend of the woman he is in love with, and she brings him to her husband's house to offset a reconciliation with him.

The novel was first published in 1777, and is considered libertine literature. It's full of descriptions of youthful lust. "Perhaps she wanted me to contradict her, but I did nothing of the sort. We therefore persuaded each other that it was impossible that we could ever be anything other than what we were to each other then," the narrator says. There's a relaxed urgency to the evening, a contradiction of the unfolding attraction between the two, and the intense desires to act upon the immediacy of the sudden romantic desires.

"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."

Denon might be one of the most didactic writers to have ever written about sex, but it's unclear at first what his moral is. Is lust better than long-term romantic love? Is it better to give into our primal instincts and not think about any consequences? Are humans naturally not monogamous creatures?

The unnamed narrator finds out that Madame de T--'s established lover was in on this evening of entertainment. He knows that she had enlisted the narrator's help to entertain her while having to see her husband, but it seems like the lover is out of the loop on what took place during the evening. What's most curious is the last line of the novel. As Peter Brooks says in the introduction: "At the end, the narrator can find no moral in his adventure. But perhaps there is one: giving and receiving pleasure, freely and without constraint, without any claim to the morrow, to continuity, may have a certain kind of morality."

Do lovers really know each other in the long run as much as they do in one single night's encounter, when, as Madame T-- says, "Discretion is the most important of the virtues; we owe it many moments of happiness.", or is it all a ruse? The novel leaves the reader with more questions than answers, and maybe that was Denon's point.

 

No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon, translated by Lydia Davis
New York Review of Books Classics
ISBN: 1590173260
112 Pages

Buy this book>>>