Saturday, November 7, 2009

NYRB Challenge Book #8: L'amour dans deux langues. . .

I've had a busy week on the road in Montreal and Ottawa and I needed another short read. But even if I'd had all the time in the world, I still would have packed No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon, translated by Lydia Davis, as it really was the perfect accompaniment for my trip.

This entrancing little novella was originally published in 1777 and then revised in 1812 (this is the edition included here), and what NYRB have done is published a bilingual edition. With my dictionary close by, I read the French version first on the train to Montreal. But my French isn't strong enough to get all the nuances - I tend to translate too literally - and so was happy to follow it up with the English translation, and then go back and read certain sections in French again. Because this is a story of playful seduction (very erotic at times), and quite frankly, it reads better in French. I have certainly improved my French vocabulary.

Our main character is only twenty and by his own admission is quite naive. He is desperately in love with the Comtesse de -----, yet willingly allows himself to be seduced by her married friend Mme de T ----- only to find out that she has some ulterior motives of her own. But it's all part of the delicious game of love; as Peter Brooks writes in his introduction, No Tomorrow is about the "ethics of pleasure". And the setting plays an important part: moonlight, a terrace overlooking the Seine, an empty pavillion, comfortable cushions strategically placed to catch reclining bodies. It's just a lovely little interlude, both the romantic encounter and the reading experience. Fans of Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangeuses will enjoy this.

Just as fascinating is to read about Vivant Denon's life, which is charted in the excellent introduction. He accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign and was appointed as the first director of French museums, responsible for starting up the Louvre with many of the "spoils" that Napoleon gathered during his battles. He also had a private museum in his Paris apartment that apparently contained, among other relics, a drop of Napoleon's blood, one of Voltaire's teeth, some ashes of Abelard's Eloise, and a few hairs from the moustache of Henri IV. (Having just read Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence, I find this fascinating).

And to make the experience even more relevant, I had a few spare hours in Montreal and went off to the Musée des beaux-arts, where there just happened to be an exhibit of personal artifacts from the Napoleon era, including the famous hat he wore during the Russian campaign in 1812, furniture, clothing and paintings and etchings depicting him. I wished I'd written down the name of the artist - but there is a very interesting and quite amusing print, depicting the rise and fall of Napoleon purely through the changes in his hat. Do catch it if you are in the city. I can also highly recommend the J.W. Waterhouse: Garden of Enchantment exhibit if you are a fan of Pre-Raphaelite painting. To see the vibrant colours of those paintings up close is magnificent. And lots of lust (if repressed) and longing there too.

And now, if you'll excuse me - I need to find a comfortable divan to recline and languish upon.

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