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On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui

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A long-forgotten book by one of Ricardo Güiraldes and Oliverio Girondo's buddies? Count me in! I'm surprised and happy that this book was translated into English last year, because if not, I might not have found out about it. After I read about the translation, I went to the library and checked out the original Spanish edition, which incongruously bears the markings of the Buenos Aires publishing house Librerías Anaconda on the front cover, and then on the next page those of Editorial Excelsor, Boulevard Raspail 42, Paris. I would assume that this is meant to further plunge the reader into the world of the narrator, a resident of the town of Bougival, on the banks of the Seine. The book is dedicated to "La Pua," a group of the author's friends which includes the aforementioned Güiraldes and Girondo. Tegui writes that, "These pages, which are those that made me worthy of your friendship, mean a great deal to me, and today, as I separate myself from them for ever, as an offering to the literary chronicle of our time, I intimately dedicate them to you." Opposite this brief dedication is a wood cut print of the author in profile. More such prints are spread throughout the book, and I hope that they made it to the English translation, as they add a nice touch to the overall reading experience.

The book is written in journal form, with the narrator beginning by introducing himself and his Bougival home. As a child he gained some notoriety for spotting more dead corpses floating down the Seine than anyone else, and he reveled in this morbid fame. His journal entries show his great powers of observation, and also a disquieting tendency toward the dark nooks and crannies of life. The closest thing to a recurring character is the carriage driver Raimundo, who lets the narrator join him in the front seat of his carriage and tells him stories as he makes his rounds. He tells him about a man of the church surprised by death in the bed of a mistress, and how he helped a woman condition the scene to make it appear otherwise; he also suggests that the narrator write a book in the style of a journal documenting the syphilitic life and death of Don Juan. In between occasional carriage rides, the narrator recalls and reflects on a series of female neighbors and their peculiarities, and conveys his negative and twisted view of the world that surrounds him. You get the feeling that you're reading the thoughts of a psychopath in gestation. The only time the entries stray from Bougival is a brief recollection of the narrator's service in the French armed forces in Africa. When he comes back, he's brought an illness with him.

It was one of Raimundo's stories, about sixty pages in, that fully won me over and made me realize that this book was indeed what I hoped it to be: he tells of how Marie Roger, one of the narrator's neighbors in Bougival, washed her hands of her husband when he lost his mind. He was truly crazy, and could not even remember his name, so his wife and daughter brought him out and convinced him to get into Raimundo's carriage and take a ride to the city. When they reached the city, they got off the carriage and put the man on a bench; they then alerted a policeman on patrol that there was a man who needed to be taken to the asylum, and when asked if they were of any relation to him, they said no. In this way, they were able to undo themselves of their husband and father without incurring any of the responsibilities associated with his illness. These are the sort of observations the narrator makes wherever he looks, and his descriptions of such dark scenes are quite poetic. His expressive language does remind me of some of his illustrious contemporaries, and when I turn back to his dedicatory passage, I imagine him taking these pages to people like Güiraldes and Girondo, imagining them to be kindred spirits and hoping for inclusion into their creative circle.

Again, it's hard to believe that this book was rediscovered and brought to English nearly ninety years after its publication. It belongs to a time, a place and a creative culture that fascinate me, and reading Tegui's journal is something like discovering a lost work written by Roberto Arlt during a trip to the countryside, a book that I wanted to exist but never thought did. I'd like to own a Spanish edition of this book, but I fear that I'll have to add it to my list of books that are easier to find at an affordable price in translation than in the original Spanish. Maybe I'll just have to serially check it out from the library and keep it in a special place on my bookshelf to read a few entries whenever the fancy strikes me. I am quite partial to this old, yellowed first edition, which has its fair share of peculiarities. On occasion, perhaps forgetting himself, the author slips a slight bit of French into the text, an "et" in place of "y" or something similarly minor; I wonder if future editions corrected these along with the other few dozen blatant typos that litter the text. ( )
1 vote msjohns615 | Mar 29, 2011 |
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.

This review also appears on my blog Literary License. ( )
2 vote gwendolyndawson | Mar 16, 2011 |
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But what a treat it is. From the self-penned epigraph ("I write out of pure voluptuousness. And so, like a courtesan, I'll take my sweet time, and begin by kicking off my shoe") and the opening entry for the fictitious diary, where someone says of his manicured hands "that man's taken such good care of his hands, the only thing left is to murder someone with them", it becomes clear that we are in the company of a true original.
 
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