Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow (Point de Lendemain), now translated by Lydia Davis!
The famous opening sentences, which Milan Kundera admired for "the playful elegance of repetition in the first paragraph of one of the loveliest pieces of French prose:"
J’aimais éperdument la comtesse de ——; j’avais vingt ans, et j’étais ingénu; elle me trompa, je me fâchai, elle me quitta. J’étais ingénu, je la regrettai; j’avais vingt ans, elle me pardonna; et comme j’avais vingt ans, que j’étais ingénu, toujours trompé, mais plus quitté, je me croyais l’amant le mieux aimé, partant le plus heureux des hommes.
I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de —— ; I was twenty years old and I was naive. 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.
Davis’ translation reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009:
Peter Brooks opens his fascinating introduction to Lydia Davis’s translation of Vivant Denon’s novella by asserting that "No Tomorrow may be the most stylish erotic tale ever written. Erotic, while not at all pornographic". Set over the course of one night and the following morning, it is the lush account of the seduction of the twenty-year-old narrator by the beautiful Mme de T ——, who knows that he is in love with her friend the Comtesse de——. A game of love and sex played out with the consent, it emerges, of Mme de T——’s lover, closes with her parting words "Don’t give the Countess cause to quarrel with me".
Point de Lendemain was first published anonymously in 1777, five years before Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses, in which such stratagems were given a more brutal twist. Brooks refers to the "male fantasy" aspects of Denon’s libertine work, and draws profitably on Marcel Mauss’ s theory of the gift — "the eighteenth century’ s erotic version of the ‘potlatch"’. He reveals that Balzac so admired Denon’s conte that he recycled it in his Physiologie du mariage (1829). Milan Kundera, it could be added, also paid homage, in his novella La Lenteur (1993).
Vivant Denon (de Non, before the Revolution) was born in 1747 into minor French nobility. He became a favourite of Louis XV and spent seven years with the French embassy in Naples where he developed an interest in antiquities. A skilled engraver, he accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign and published his Travels through Lower and Upper Egypt in 1802. Napoleon later appointed him first Director of the Louvre. He died in 1825. Point de Lendemain is his only work of fiction.
Lydia Davis’s translation is equal to the challenges of Denon’s formal , elaborate prose, and there is little to choose between her version and the excellent one produced by David Coward in 1995. Where Denon writes "Le château ainsi que les jardins, appuyés contre une montagne, descendaient en terrasse jusque sur les rives de la Seine", Davis gives us: "The château as well as the gardens, resting against a mountainside, descended in terraces to the banks of the Seine", while Coward goes for the topographically more realistic " … built on the side of a hill, sloped down in terraces to the Seine". Elsewhere, the narrator tells us "J’étais d’ailleurs trop ému pour me rendre compte de ce que j’éprouvais"; Davis renders it "Besides, I was too moved to realize what I was experiencing", while Coward gives us "But truth to tell l was too distraught to know what I felt". Both appear to fit. This elegant edition reproduces Denon’s original text. which remains, by common consent, a masterpiece.