On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui (trans. Idra Novey). Dalkey Archive Press, 200 pp., $13.95.
“And so, like a courtesan,” the Viscount Lascano Tegui writes in the epigraph to On Elegance While Sleeping (1925), “I’ll take my sweet time, and begin by kicking off my shoe.” And take his sweet time he does. The sinister novel is structured as a fictional diary that culminates in a horrific final act of violence, but the tension builds slowly as the diarist occupies himself with elements of the everyday: watch repair, socks and gloves, apothecaries, brothels, the tales of a local coachman. The book belongs to a long line of narrated confessions that includes Poe’s short stories and Camus’s The Stranger. But Lascano Tegui’s memoir of murder is more grotesque and feverish than it is neurotic, as the protagonist recounts his life in Bougival, a small town downstream from Paris, where he spends his childhood fishing bodies out of the Seine and getting clandestine ammonia massages. Yet the playful note struck in the epigraph does not disappear from the rest of the book, despite the descent into madness portrayed. Alongside macabre discussions of hunchbacks and syphilis and flies dying against transparent glass, we encounter mocking quips, mordant bits of wisdom (“Women are birds you must hunt with metaphor”), and even an almost whimsical passage on the protagonist’s early infatuation with a particularly comely goat.
Lascano Tegui was himself, as wonderfully described in Celina Manzoni’s introduction, an eccentric known throughout Latin America for his overstated personality and “psychotic” literary work. He left Argentina for Europe, while his protagonist only leaves Bougival during a brief stint in the army, but both are obsessed with the possibility of human transformation. Lascano Tegui assigned himself his aristocratic title and took on an exaggerated persona, just as his fictional diarist as a child habitually changes his appearance: “I wanted to strip myself,” he writes, “of every sign that would enable people to identify me with certainty.” The protagonist longs to improve human nature, “which makes us all so fragile and imperfect,” but he also argues that spirit and matter are the same thing—we are what we look like we are—and that there is no costume for the human soul.
The world that emerges through the diary is as bleak and crumbling as the protagonist’s own mind. By setting the diary several decades in the past—though the specific dates remain uncertain, the events seem to take place at some point in the latter half of the 19th century—Lascano Tegui uses his portrait of progressive mental and moral degeneration to suggest the much further advanced infirmity of the modern world. If the world, as the coachman tells us, is “slowly committing suicide” in the late 1800s, how much closer to death must it have become in 1925? Could that predicted future time in which “no more poets will be born” have been the early 20th century? Or does it lie ahead of us still? Unlike other works of the period, which were so often preoccupied with speed or vigor or the urban landscape as a metaphor for human progress, this little diary has more in common with earlier Wildean decadence: it is a portrait of putrefaction, of a culture that has lost its “rhythm of the spiritual” and its medieval sense of life’s explicability. Like adults bereft of the elegant obliviousness of youth, civilizations seem to be doomed to ungraceful aging, and infancy only presages death: “The face of a newborn,” he writes, “reveals something about the precariousness of our life on earth.”
And although the narrator is a misfit whose maladaptation to the world climaxes in an act of vicious cruelty, he nevertheless wonders—plaintively? despairingly?—how different he really is from other people. His vision of a fragile, imperfect race of perverts and criminals is less an affectionate embrace for flawed humanity, or an affirmation of solidarity in folly, than it is an accusing finger, an indictment of our rush to condemn others without examining our own failings. But it is the humdrum of everyday life that is its greatest failing. The protagonist criticizes art for trying to disguise the tedium and mediocrity of life, for dressing it up in dynamic or sentimental clothes that obscure trite reality.
Thus art, traditionally the sensitive soul’s instrument for transcending the banality or horror of our mundane existence, is little consolation. The diarist’s every experience is aestheticized. “Love,” he claims, “is the most profound aesthetic experience in a person’s life,” while meticulously manicured hands seem ready for murder. This makes life itself an artistic project of sorts. Indeed, his narration of his life in diary form is extremely self-conscious, not just in the usual diary-appropriate soul-baring ways but also as a literary endeavor. And he spends much of the latter part of his musings planning to write a book, hoping that art will be a way out of his own illness and unhappiness. But he is also deeply skeptical of the enterprise, describing writing a book as “the greatest shame that an original mind can bring upon itself,” and commenting acerbically, “If we could collect all our dandruff as easily as we collect the so-called contents of our heads, it would be just as publishable.”
How lucky we are to have the chance to read this collection of brain-dandruff, marvelously translated by Idra Novey. Novey perfectly captures the novel’s dreary atmosphere and the claustrophobic sensation of a mind gnawing off its own leg in an effort to escape from a trap. The subdued but gripping voice rehashing the past in the book’s early sections rises to a plot-driven fever pitch in the final pages, catching the reader off guard and transforming a feeling of general unease into full-fledged horror. This is a strange and menacing book, and the mischievous juxtaposition of irony and humor with malice and depravity makes it a compelling read. It offers an intriguing look at a somewhat obscure Argentinean avant-garde novel and an interesting counterpoint to other literature of the period.
Andrea Rosenberg is a literary translator from the Spanish and Portuguese. An extract from her translation of Alfredo Iriarte’s Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles appeared in Issue 23 of The Quarterly Conversation./p>
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