On Elegance While Sleeping

Review of Viscount Lascano Tegui, On Elegance While Sleeping, translated by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive, 2010). Published in PopMatters (10 Feb 2011).

The wonderfully titled On Elegance While Sleeping is the first of Viscount Lascano Tegui’s novels to be given a complete English translation. Originally published in Spanish by a French publisher in 1925 the work, like its author, has remained a hidden gem in the history of surrealist literature. Tegui was an Argentinian writer (amongst numerous other vocations) who worked in Europe as a translator, and the novel is set in a French village on the banks of the Seine. The “Viscount” was Tegui’s own addition to his name (his Christian name was Emilio), just as his Uruguay-born predecessor Isidore Ducasse took on the aristocratic pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont.

Tegui’s novel, styled somewhere between diary and memoir, shares a number of themes with Lautréamont’s notorious Les Chants de Maldoror, though Tegui’s account is more subtle in its gradual unfolding of depravity, desire, and death. Where Lautréamont warns his readers at the outset that they may prefer not to read of Maldoror’s evil, Tegui allows his nameless narrator to seduce us with prose of the utmost elegance, only admitting very near the end that the book he wishes to write is little more than a “symptomatic journal of my disease” and that “writing a book is the greatest shame that an original mind can bring upon itself”.

Ever the velvet-tongued seducer, Tegui “himself” tells us something slightly different in the opening lines to book’s epigraph: “I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess. I write for myself and for friends. I don’t have a large audience or fame and don’t receive awards. I know all the literary strategies intimately and despise them.” These lines contain a number of themes pertinent to the subsequent narrative: voluptuousness, confession, self-consciousness, readership, transience, and fragmentation.

Let’s begin with voluptuousness, which is often coupled here to an actual object, such as when the narrator recalls trying on a woman’s corset and finding it “the sheath of voluptuousness”. At other times it’s an attitude, a sense of a seductive way of being in the world. Tegui seduces with his prose, drawing the reader into an ever more depraved fantasy world in a manner that mixes repulsion with wonder. Voluptuousness is also an openness to new things and new experiences, and Tegui describes them all with a certain blankness which is, however, never devoid of beauty, of writing’s own voluptuous possibilities.

Then there is confession. The book, presented as a diarized autobiography, acts as a series of confessions: past misdemeanors, present fantasies, future crimes. All diaries are confessions (as Pablo Neruda noted so eloquently when titling his memoirs I Confess I Have Lived) and this one is no exception. It can be read as a collection of thought fragments, akin perhaps to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge or Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, to be found after the author’s death, to make us as readers witnesses to the event of an artist’s life (and, in Tegui’s case at least, to the depravity of the departed). At the same time, Tegui’s novel contains its own confessor in the shape of a coachman called Raimundo, the only character other than the narrator’s family to feature extensively in the narrative.

As for intended audience, Tegui tells us that he writes for himself and friends. And yet he writes. He makes permanent that which arguably ought not be made permanent and, in doing so, relinquishes control over the ultimate destination of his words. To be sure, there is modernist posturing here–the deliberate refutation of audience and fame, the professed derision of literary conceit–but still he writes, knowing that others may read and judge him.

In the opening of the epigraph we also get a sense of the fragmented nature of Tegui’s style. Continuity and consistency are to be despised. And yet, as we discover, the lucid snapshots of memory, desire, and imagination that populate the journal achieve continuity and consistency precisely from their fragmented nature. This is memory as Marcel Proust and Roland Barthes imagined it, the madeleine clarity of the unexpected and uncalled for vision that prompted the recollection mixing uneasily with the act of recollection itself.

What Tegui gives us are what Barthes called “biographemes”, discrete flashes or impressions from the archive of memory that, in many ways, recall a life more effectively than a chronological account. What needs to be remembered trumps the order in which events happen. Tegui helps us here by removing the exact dates from his entries (each of which lists a month and partial year: 18–). Later he will confess: “This journal I write, almost without wanting to, as dusk falls, doesn’t always paint a true picture of what’s happened to me. Rather, these are evocations of events, the memory of which passes its pen across my brow.”

This approach to memory is similar to that which would later be perfected by the American artist Joe Brainard in his book I Remember, which comprised a list of seemingly random memory fragments that added up to a life’s experience. Even the style anticipates Brainard, and after him Georges Perec: “At a certain point in my life, I remember having seen and spoken to people who’d achieved a greater degree of perfection than the people I know now”; “I also remember that, at that age, coach horses would smile at me”. Even given the exclusion of chronology, however, we are able to piece together a coherent picture of the narrator’s youth, just as we are able to gain an increasing awareness of teleology governing the more recent events he recounts, which, we come to learn, are fueling his desire not to commit a far more sinister crime than writing.

Tegui is a master of the evocation of transience, of “the drunken ecstasy of our brief lives”. He loves to speak of solitude–“the infinite solitude that is night in the provinces”–and there is a constant sense of the narrator setting himself apart. At one point he describes watching his “family fall the way a leper watches his cold, swollen hands drop off in pieces”, then admits to his own aloofness, to keeping his distance from friends the better to observe them. This distance is maintained even in his imagination, for example when he recounts reading adventure stories as a child: “How I wanted to go into combat with the ferocious natives … They were incomplete beings, above whom floated the arrogant superiority of a boy from civilization”. Arrogance, aloofness, and affectation are qualities Tegui’s narrator shares with those of Pessoa and which will later be manifested by Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus’s L’Étranger.

And again, as in Pessoa, we find one who is knowledgeable but for whom all knowledge invades all thought processes, leading to asides that seemingly have little to do with the narrative (“they say the gondoliers of Venice are the most agile men on earth”). This, along with the juxtaposition of the confessional, the banal and the horrifying, at times suggests On Elegance as a far-flung ancestor of American Psycho, albeit one whose frames of reference are more classical than pop-cultural.

Throughout the book there are brilliant, if disturbing, descriptions, such as the one of Raimundo looking at a group of nuns “as though through an open fly”. Tegui also displays a wonderful sense of phrasing and timing. Referring to the adventure stories, he writes: “Having read those books, I saw the world as divided into two hemispheres: the hemisphere of stabbing, and then the far more prestigious hemisphere of shooting.” He follows with the brief pause of a paragraph break, then adds: “And I had a photograph of myself taken with a revolver in my hand.” This, along with numerous highly quotable phrases, gives Tegui’s work something of the flavor of Wilde’s, and it comes as little surprise to see comparisons made between On Elegance and Dorian Gray.

This is a book whose own transient nature, whose luxurious nothingness, demands rereading. Second and third readings emphasize the limpid beauty of the prose and tease out the subtle connections between the book’s themes, giving it a sense of coherence which its surface denies. It becomes, in short, an elegant masterpiece.