On Elegance While Sleeping

To poet Idra Novey falls the task of producing the first English translation of Viscount Lascano Tegui’s 1925 cult classic from Argentina, On Elegance While Sleeping, and she fulfills the assignment splendidly.  Her efforts have given Tegui’s eccentric minor masterpiece a gloss that is at once modern yet timeless, bringing the bracingly mordant and sardonic voice of this nigh-forgotten contemporary of Picasso and Apollinaire to a new audience.

Tegui annointed himself “Viscount” in a move fully consonant with the Surrealist/Dadaist crowd with whom he consorted, and throughout his checkered career he pursued an experimentalist program.  But despite the assertions by the capable introducer of this edition, Celina Manzoni, that this novel is tremendously non-linear and hallucinatory, I found it to be a cleverly, elegantly interleaved, compact and almost classical portrait of a soul too sensitive for the hurly-burly of life.  Tristram Shandy it’s not, but rather almost a close cousin of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes.

Told in diary format, the book chronicles the aesthetic, sexual, moral, intellectual and vocational development—or is that degradation?—of the nameless narrator.  Born into a humble family in a small French village, he strikes out independently for a brief period in adult life, only to fall back to his roots in despair, choosing to perform an outrageous act that he hopes will lend some validity or reality to his existence:  a weird foreshadowing of Camus’s The Stranger.

Admittedly, the book is full of transgressive acts and oddball imagery, not lacking a certain tongue-in-cheek quality.  (The passage in which the young narrator falls in love with a she-goat is particularly risible.)  And the baggy-pants framework of the tale allows Tegui to flail about at the conventions and hypocrisies of society in robust, if not utterly surprising fashion.  “Our geniuses were pretentious and individualist and unapologetically so.  Their destiny was to lead all other men to the slaughter and thus be left alone in their brilliance.”  Even by 1925, this rebellious line of thought was so codified that it could almost have served as a party platform.  And when Tegui opines, “Certainly if people made love in the streets, in front of everyone, health and hygiene levels in the city would be above reproach,” one can almost hear the Beatles singing “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” in the background. 

Tegui’s hero is trapped between two opposed philosophies:  that life is a voluptuous joyride, and that it is a whited sepulchre.  Unable to reconcile the extreme views, he is left with nihilism as the abyss into which he stares.  But miraculously, Tegui’s book achieves the synthesis his hero never could.


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.