By Michael Dirda
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 10, 2009
By Vivant Denon
Translated from the French by Lydia Davis
New York Review Books. 63 pp. Paperback, $12.95
The French dramatist Marivaux called one of his sparkling comedies "Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard" -- "The Game of Love and Chance." That same phrase might serve as the subtitle to this brief erotic novella, the sole known work of fiction by Vivant Denon (1747-1825).
While Denon is remembered principally for this little masterpiece, in his lifetime he was one of Napoleon's chief art experts, scooping up paintings and sculpture in the wake of the emperor's conquests, then stocking the Louvre with the looted treasures. One of that museum's pavilions still bears his name. It somehow seems right that a connoisseur of the beautiful should produce such a story as "No Tomorrow" (first published in 1777, though the revised 1812 version, translated here, is preferred).
One evening at the opera, a young man, already "desperately" in love with a countess, accidentally encounters her friend, the lovely and older Mme de T--. From her box, Mme de T-- immediately begins to banter with our unnamed narrator, he responds with compliments, the mutual flirtation increases, and then this knowing woman simply whisks the 20-year-old away in her carriage. They drive to the country home of her estranged husband, with whom she is, supposedly, in the process of reconciling. M. de T-- joins them for dinner but then retires, and the enchanted evening begins. "The moon was setting, and its last rays soon lifted the veil of a modesty that was, I think, becoming rather tiresome."
In his introduction, Peter Brooks -- one of the great scholars of late-18th- and 19th-century French fiction -- likens Denon's book to the paintings of Fragonard and the operas of Mozart. Certainly, "No Tomorrow" possesses comparable aesthetic virtues: lightness, brevity, wit, quickness, an air of galanterie and courtly sophistication. But all these masterworks also convey the faintest touch of melancholy, the sense that nothing lasts for long and that the wisdom of life is to enjoy each passing moment. "Carpe diem" -- seize the day -- for who knows if there will be a tomorrow?
Obviously, such an approach to existence could lead to boorish and selfish excess, casual lechery and a pervasive brutalization of the spirit. But, at its highest, this hedonistic philosophy asks us to look upon the world as a work of art, one that we are allowed to enjoy during our short visit to this earthly museum, each day in it unique, each person irreplaceable.
Given such an outlook, what matters is to respond as fully as possible to those evanescent moments we are offered, whether by chance or design. Some of those experiences, moreover, should be sipped and savored, not merely chugged down. Preliminary pleasures count.
Only after much wandering through the gardens, exchanging kisses and caresses, does Mme de T-- disingenuously lead the narrator into a chamber -- "a vast cage of mirrors" -- adjoining her bedroom. It had been designed by her estranged husband to help awaken his own enfeebled libido. Scenes from mythology adorn the ceiling; in one corner there is a statue of Amor with an altar before it; a mound of cushions fills an alcove or "grotto." Not surprisingly, the couple's gradual entrance into this sanctum sanctorum resembles a rite or initiation; the novella's language grows hushed, distinctly religious, as is appropriate to what the poet John Donne once called "love's mysteries." The narrator even views himself as "a young proselyte."
In his introduction Brooks compares this carefully orchestrated scene to the Masonic ritual -- the testing of love -- in Mozart's "Magic Flute." When Denon's couple finally engage with each other, they do so, in the critic's words, "willingly, happily, with a combination of knowledge and marvel." Nothing, though, is described in detail, and the reader must guess or imagine what happens. As Denon writes, "Discretion is the most important of the virtues." Besides, don't modern therapists insist that sex really takes place in the head?
"No Tomorrow" doesn't end here, at what is actually just the midpoint of the novella. More games than one have been played during this ecstatic night, and still others will be played out on the day after. The 18th century, after all, relished irony as much as the 21st does. But why say any more -- except to add that this paperback is itself an elegant production in every way. Fragonard's "The Meeting" entrancingly graces the cover, followed by Brooks's engaging and expert introduction (which really should have been an afterword, given that it reveals so much of the novella's action). Then comes Lydia Davis's excellent English translation, succeeded in its turn by the novella's French original. Those who try the latter will find Denon's French clear and laconic, as easy as Voltaire's.
You can read "No Tomorrow" in just an hour. Its chiaroscuro effects of candlelight and shadow, its teasing tone, its picture of gradual unveiling and dishabille will keep you both charmed and on edge. Embrace the gradualness, the anticipation. There's no need to rush.