3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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Emilio Lascano Tegui (1887-1966) was, at various times during his eventful life, an Argentinean, a Parisian, a self-labeled viscount, a translator, a journalist, a curator, a painter, a decorator, a diplomat, a mechanic, an orator, a dentist, and, fortunately for us, a writer. Tegui's 1925 novel On Elegance While Sleeping, a cult classic in Argentina, Tegui's home country, is now available for the first time to an English-speaking audience (thanks to Dalkey Archive Press and translator Idra Novey). This genre-defying novel is framed as a four-year series of chronologically-ordered diary entries composed by an unnamed French infantryman in the late 1800s. Like its author, this novel's narrator concerns himself with a bit of everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink (or, should I say, the cultivation of carrots). The entries touch on the themes of life, illness (specifically, syphilis), death, sex, gender, memory, crime, and literature, to name just a few. Seamlessly shifting among present reflections, past recollections, and stories within stories, the entries examine the mundane (one begins "Cotton mittens bother me when they're dyed black.") as well as the sublime ("Nothing spreads sadness like popularity.") and range in length from just two sentences to almost seven pages. The result is a work of art that's impossible to categorize. Is it autobiography? Allegory? A crime novel? An experiment in form? In a word, yes.
Just before we lose our bearings wandering among this heady collection of seemingly aimless thoughts--that is, at the perfect moment--On Elegance While Sleeping changes registers. The novel adopts a foreboding tone as the diary entries slowly coalesce into the thoughts of a man intent on committing murder. Driven by a Raskolnikov-like need "[t]o unburden humanity of an imperfect being: a weakness," the diarist lays out his motivations in chilling and poetic prose:
"I've sketched out my plans and am ready. I have a new strength in me, taken from the secret core of my life, driving me on, controlling me. It's health, youth, and optimism combined. Until yesterday, my tentative novel ("The Syphilis of Don Juan") served as a haven for my imagination. Today, it doesn't satisfy my thirst--or, better said, can no longer stem the anguish that gnaws at me on the eve of an act that is now quite inevitable. I'm halfway between a comedy and a strange sort of drama, and feel an overbearing need to lower the curtain. No simple curtain: the front curtain of the stage, the grand drape, the great iron and asbestos curtain that drops like a zinc plate from the sixth floor and creaks as it falls. Something like that, flamboyant, coarse, unexpected--something that will impose its tyranny over my life without question. I'm going to kill someone."
Tegui's prose is a seductive mix of hard edges and soft contours, flowing musings and sharp declarations. Translator Idra Novey maintains this delicate balance, juxtaposing "a haven for my imagination" with "the anguish that gnaws" and following a complex and elegant three-sentence metaphor with the startling declaration, "I'm going to kill someone." Tegui's compelling style relies as much on rhythm and sound as it does on content, and Novey masterfully recreates this effect in English.
At its core, On Elegance While Sleeping gives us access to the soul of a man who is desperately seeking. Whether it's love, sex, happiness, connection with his fellow man, an imaginative outlet, or simply a good story, the problem is the same: to find what he lacks. He asks, "Could it be that the thing I'm missing is courage?" Does our diarist have the fortitude to follow through with his murderous plan? To discover the answer, you'll have to read the book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
The narrator/diarist of On Elegance While Sleeping personifies a particular type current in the yellow literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - that of the immoralist. The Dalkey Archive translation makes reference to Wilde's Dorian Gray and Lautreamont's (another South American of invented nobility) Maldoror, and we also see in the novel a direct association with the character Lafcadio in Gide's Caves du Vatican (The Vatican Cellars). We perceive in these works the literary reflection of the precocious violence of the naïve genius Rimbaud, and the contempt for bourgeois society evident in the works of Jarry and the brief florescence of the Dadaist agitators, with their stated goal of disturbing the ceremony. In his Foundations of Modern Art (1931, revised 1952), Ozenfant draws parallels between Gide's antihero and the surrealists, noting commonality in "their particular turn of thought: anxious, elegant, melancholy, tangential, incidental, elliptical, their taste for evoking emotion through what is singular: their oneiric glossolalia: and their interest in the unmotivated act." These are also the characteristics of the pale criminal with the delicate hands at the heart of Tegui's novel.
This decadent novel indeed opens on a surreal note. In his diary entries, the protagonist rarely speaks of immediate experience, but rather uses the journal as a means of reminiscence. He recalls his youth in the town of Bougival, down the Seine from Paris. Down the river would come the corpses of the drowned (and implicitly, those of the murdered and the suicides): our young hero would count coup by fishing the bodies, with their hands waving from the muck, from their entanglement in the mill wheel, at the same time slipping a business card from the town mortician in the pocket of the bloated corpse. This scavenging of the human effluence issuing forth from the great metropolis is only the beginning of a catalogue of transgressions against bourgeois conventions that will include pederasty, homosexuality, voyeurism, transvestism, bestiality, rape and murder. There is, in the narrator, a random bipolarity between the extremes of ironic dispassion (speaking of a North African café and a local brothel - "We felt entirely at home in both places: we took off our jackets in one and our pants in the other") and a sickly sentimentality ("There's nothing more in life than to love someone. To be loved. Such is the happy monotony of my life."). The only other significant character is the coachman Raimundo, who has his own obsessions with the debauchery of Don Juan.
The eyes and ears are passive. The hands are a mode of action. The protagonist fusses over hands, particularly his own. He is a manicured dandy, a solipsist of whom someone exclaims on the first page "He cares for his hands like a man preparing for a murder."
The journal moves between brief reminiscences and opinions, mostly of a carnal nature and evident of a healthy dispassion towards the suffering of others (he enjoys news of disasters and fatalities: "what are a few deaths compared to the moral serenity...provided to people like myself"). At last the diarist comes to that moment, the penultimate step before the summit of his debaucheries and immoralities, that inevitable Nietzschean moment which calls for the courage of the knife:
"Something like that, flamboyant, coarse, unexpected - something that will impose its tyranny over my life without question. I'm going to kill someone.""
He finds his victim easily enough. It is the perennial victim of the 20th century, that one small and insignificant person, deemed valueless, whose murder will be magnified over the century by the thousands and the millions, depersonalized by neglect and violence into non-existence:
"As I passed her in the market, I found her concentrating heavily on some change she'd been thrown. She counted it coin by coin, like a child or a savage. Her slowness in counting, her obvious limited ability, made up my mind. It authorized my act. To unburden humanity of an imperfect being: a weakness."
From Baudelaire on down, the decadent illustrates the most immaculate morality in his immorality. For what is a greater morality, than to wish to excise the malignancy, the sickness, or, like the Gnostic Sethians, to exterminate it by exhausting it? Tegui's pale criminal accepts the knife with gusto, and is rewarded by the indifference of his fellows. In the aftermath of the bloodbath, he walks the streets and notices the dismal face of the town clock, and realizes that he, the murderer, is of the common run of mankind.
Dalkey Archive's resurrection of Tegui's novel almost a hundred years after itscomposition is a noteworthy event, as we can see by the notices it has generated. It shows that a gem may be pulled from the muck and cleansed, and put forth for consideration by a new and worthy audience. Idra Novey's translation perfectly captures the essence of the author's words and sentiments.