I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess. I write for myself and for friends. I don't have a large audience or fame and don't receive awards. I know all the literary strategies intimately and despise them. The naiveté of my contemporaries pains me, but I respect it. I'm also conceited enough to believe I never repeat myself or steal from other writers, to believe I never repeat myself or steal from other writers, to believe I'll always remain a virgin, and this narcissism doesn't come cheap. I have to suffer the indifference of those around me. But, as I said, I write out of pure voluptuousness. And so, like a courtesan, I'll take my sweet time, and begin by kicking off my shoe.This epigraph to Argentine writer Viscount Lascano Tegui's 1925 short novel, On Elegance While Sleeping, written by the author himself, sets the stage nicely for what follows. It is a pseudo-personal diary; it is a macabre novel. It has similarities with fellow South American Comte de Lautréamont; it may have some with Oscar Wilde. Yet it ultimately is little like any of these and it is in that tension between the apparent and the actual where the adventuresome reader might discover some discomforting truths which might excite them even as they might feel repelled. That is the genius on display here and it is long past time that this contemporary of Oliverio Girondo, Roberto Arlt, and Jorge Luis Borges receives his own translation into English.
On Elegance While Sleeping is a short novel; it is under 200 pages. Yet its contents belie its brevity; it is full of digressions that slowly, purposely build up to tell a story that is much more than the sum of its thoughts. Take for instance the introduction to the narrator's pseudo-diary:
The first time I entrusted my hands to a manicurist was the evening I headed to the Moulin Rouge. The woman trimmed back my cuticles and polished my nails with an emery board. Then she filed them to points and finished up with some polish. My hands no longer looked like they belonged to me. I put them on my table, in front of my mirror, and changed their positions in the light. With the same sense of self-consciousness one feels when posing for a photographer, I picked up a pen and began to write.
That's how I started this book.
At the Moulin Rouge that night I heard a woman standing nearby say in Spanish: "That man's taken such good care of his hands, the only thing left is to murder someone with them." (p. 3)
Underneath the banal descriptions of a dandy getting his nails filed and polished, with its near eidetic recall detailed at laborious length, there is a hint of something monstrous that is being planned. With each entry, most rarely being more than a few pages long, Tegui develops this fascinating narrator. Is this narrator what he appears to be? Is he hiding something out in plain sight? Just why does he keep engaging in digressions?
Tegui does a masterful job throughout this novel of playing off these tensions found in juxtaposing mundane details (such as the Seine river flowing through the narrator's 19th century birthplace of Bougival) with the horrific (detailed discussions of things such as "it [the river] jammed the millwheel with the bodies of drowning victims, bashful beneath its surface." (p. 4)). The reader perhaps will find herself just wondering more about this narrator. Is he sane at all? Just what is he telling us that's so important that he interrupts his descriptions of depravities with trivialities and his depictions of everyday life with brutalities?
One possible approach toward reading On Elegance While Sleeping is to pay closer attention to those seemingly trivial details. A closer examination of these dozens of entries reveals a life that is fascinating in its frustrations as much as in what has been accomplished. The narrator is a former soldier and in those descriptions of his sensitivities and his impending dissolution (both moral and physical alike), Tegui slowly constructs a fascinating portrait of a person at the edge, both in terms of his real and imagined conflicts such as his statements on homosexuality, which are intriguing in how denial and implied acceptance of it are conmingled in such a fashion as to accentuate the divisions within the narrator's own mind. The result is a mosaic image of a person whose desires and conflicts are not as much baldly stated but rather elements that are constructed from inferences and strengthened by seeming digressions into the quotidian, mundane world surrounding him.
Idra Novey's translation appears to contain no faults. Although I have the Spanish original on import order now, her prose is elegant and there never is the sense that I was reading a translation. The psychological depths of Tegui's writings are brought out here in full splendor and despite the sometimes graphic, lurid recounting of certain desires (the "sleeping" desire being foremost here), the narrative contains a force to it that almost compels the reader to continue onward. The diary concludes abruptly, realizing the full impact of the gradual buildup prior to its sudden conclusion. That conclusion strengthens what Tegui has developed all along, as the narrator's proclivities, his anguish, his quest for "rest" flow into a murderous crescendo that reverberates back through the narrative, creating a desire on the reader's part to re-read and reconsider just what has transpired and how Tegui relates this momentous event.
Published a generation after the Symbolists and Decadents made their mark on European and American literary scenes, On Elegance While Sleeping is a worthy successor to such memorable works as Maldoror, Là-Bas, or The Picture of Dorian Gray. Tegui's work contains the layers of psychological depth and conflict found in the works mentioned above and the sometimes surreal-like alternation between the "real" and the narrator's feverish views of himself and the world around him creates a narrative tension that adds power to a potent tale. On Elegance While Sleeping is quite simply one of the best successors to the literary worlds of the Symbolists and Decadents and 85 years after its initial release, it is finally receiving the English translation it so richly deserves.
This book will be published on November 30, 2010 and is available online and through Dalkey Archive Press.