On Elegance While Sleepingby Jesse Tangen-Mills
Translated by Idra Novey
On Elegance While Sleeping
“I understand literary strategies well and they nauseate me,” the Argentine author, Viscount Lascano Tegui wrote. His first book On Elegance While Sleeping, published in 1925, contains hardly any “literary strategies”; instead, it works on a basic convention, the faux diary. However, despite its simplicity the novel is undeniably experimental. Nearly a hundred years after its publication, it remains a fascinating and often unsettling book.
On Elegance While Sleeping masquerades as the diary of a French aristocrat in the 19th century, who painstakingly, even sadistically, records his darkest thoughts. As the blue blood narrator accumulates details from his daily life—an obsession with fingers for example—he unknowingly builds towards a senseless murder. In fact, one of the count’s pontifications, “A book is slow, unavoidable catastrophe,” could well apply to this book and the murder it narrates.
Diary entries that begin, “Why do I like women whose faces have something of the bony facial structure of sheep about them?,” or, “To live is the victory of the fetus,” need little elaboration, and often end soon after they begin.
Given the novel’s dreary premise, it might come as a surprise that the author Viscount Lascano Tegui led a colorful life. Member of the radically leftist Argentine political party, Partido Radical, he reportedly delivered rousing speeches in tetrameter, before finding a job with the postal service that brought him to North Africa. From there he made his way to Europe, where he began writing as a correspondent for various publications in Buenos Aires. In Paris he made the acquaintance of Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, and fellow members of the Argentine avant-garde living there at the time. In 1925 he was hired by the Argentine Foreign Service and for twenty years he worked in cities around the globe as a diplomat, in the meantime writing verse, essays and novels in near obscurity, for which he condemned his colleagues and Argentine critics. However, On the Elegance While Sleeping has gained some notoriety since it was reissued in Argentina in 1995.
But there is very little of the real Tegui—the world traveler and minor writer—anywhere in these pages, with the exception one lugubrious passage that may evidence his friendship with Picasso. In a diary entry about women, the narrator argues that men can only see women in pieces, “a braid, an eye, a buttock, a leg.” Never weary of hyperbole, Tegui continues, “Man even dies without knowing his own wife. What is it that he loves in her, if not what he loved in the opposite sex back when he was a full-time masturbator?“
In the same way the reader of a Romantic novel might expect to “oh” and “ah,” as the handsome and brave protagonist proves to be so admirable time and time again, in Tegui’s novel it feels as though we are either meant to be appalled or amused at this incredibly twisted protagonist. More than a few times I was reminded of the Dr. Evil from Austin Powers talking about his mother, the web-footed Belgian prostitute, at a therapy session.
Although already long dead by Tegui’s lifetime, Comte de Lautréamont, the late 19th century poète maudit, author of Maldoror clearly had a hold on Tegui. Born Isidore Lucien Ducasse in Uruguay, he also gave himself a pseudo-royal title, while enjoying his seat with the bohéme pariesienne, before molding their enthusiasm for experimentation into his first novel, On Elegance While Sleeping. As a result, the two works have much in common. Both feature mad, obsessive and sadistic diarists in their work. Likewise, both authors improvise in order to break with the conventional. Tegui starts a passage, “They say the gondoliers of Venice are the most agile men on earth” moving to “I imagine them to be like black cats,” and then focusing on “only their eyes have live to them” only to end, “eyes the same as the cheap crystal eyes of embalmed animals in provincial museums.”
In a letter in 1866, a few years before he died at 24, Lautréamont wrote to a friend, “To be possessed by a fixed idea. Are you familiar with this torment?” The “fixed idea” is exactly what brings our protagonist to the fringes of sanity. In fact, life as presented in On Elegance While Sleeping exists in “fixed ideas,” propositions that for a second seem to make sense, until one realizes just how incredulous they are. Is syphilis really a “civilizing disease”? Is the world truly committing “suicide”?
On Elegance While Sleeping is indeed a lost treasure in part because it is so preposterous. Unlike so many other works from the Modernist period, Tegui’s novel is immediately gratifying and accessible, despite all of its intentions to confound, if not disgust, the reader.