By Gwendolyn Dawson
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.
On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Emilio Tegui (translated by Idra Novey) is published in the United States by Dalkey Archive. Read a preview of the book here.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear here and there regularly.