Friday, November 6, 2009

No Tomorrow

I love reading books on history. Occasionally I grow tired of heavy, dry tomes and want something lighter and fanciful. I don’t care much for modern literature, preferring books written a century or more ago. But not because they are historical. I like them because they were written by people living at that time in history. They allow us to experience the feelings and dreams of people who lived long ago.

Often historical novels or Hollywood films get all the details are correct but the thoughts and emotions of the characters are modern. I understand that this makes the characters more accessible to modern audiences but I hunger for authenticity.

Vivant Denon was no ordinary author. In fact, “No Tomorrow” is the only fiction he is known to have written. The rest of his works were travelogues. He was an engraver, a courtier and a diplomat. He accompanied Napoleon on his military campaign in Egypt. Denon was the first Director of French Museums. He was largely responsible for the collections in the Louvre. It is safe to say that Vivant Denon was no hack writer.

This brief tale of a young man’s seduction by an older married woman is a window into the past. The opera house where they first meet is seen through the eyes of an author who had spent many hours in opera houses. Their long flight by coach to her husband’s secluded estate necessitates changing horses multiple times much as we would refill the tanks in our cars. Just as we use water to symbolize intimacy, the lovers consummate their affair to the sounds of a stream that runs past the summer house where they sought privacy.

On an emotional level, modern readers may be shocked to learn that sex in France during that era was regarded very differently from our own more puritanical outlook. This is the authenticity that I seek. To be able to vicariously experience the emotions and outlook of a world so different from our own. Not to be titillated, but to actually live, however briefly, in that time.

“No Tomorrow” is not graphic. It is not pornography. It is more dreamlike than erotic. It is a story in the Romantic tradition. An age that ended with the French Revolution and the guillotine. Knowing this as you read it lends poignancy to the story.

Review copy courtesy of New York Review Books Classics

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