Tegui’s “On Elegance While Sleeping”

Up at the Wall Street Journal:

UPON ITS publication in 1925, “On Elegance While Sleeping” launched Lascano Tegui, a self- appointed “viscount,” to the heights of literary fame, both in Argentina, where he was born, and in Paris, where he lived and worked as a diplomat, journalist and (yes) dental mechanic. Although Tegui published several autobiographical novels after “Elegance”—and was once heralded as among Argentina’s most talented modernists—most of his work has spent decades out of print, even in his native country. Tegui’s reputation is only now being excavated in Argentina, and Idra Novey’s lively translation of “On Elegance While Sleeping” marks his first, and long overdue, appearance in English.

Set in a provincial French village at some point in the 19th century, Tegui’s bizarre novella is styled as a journal and reminiscent of a fever dream. We read a series of dispatches from the fragile mind of Meursault, a young French Raskolnikov caught between the desire to write a book and the desire to commit a murder. Eventually, through a tangled and increasingly disturbed logic, he concludes that it makes no difference which he does. “At the Moulin Rouge that night,” the novel begins, “I heard a woman standing nearby say in Spanish: ‘That man’s taken such good care of his hands, the only thing left is to murder someone with them.’ ”

On Elegance While Sleeping

By Viscount Lascano Tegui

Dalkey Archive Press, 174 pages, $13.95

Tegui once remarked that he wrote “out of pure voluptuousness,” and “Elegance” reflects this impulse. When Meursault is not plotting to kill, he is trying on corsets, fantasizing about goats, and writing journal entries that oscillate between lyrical reflection and icy calculation. As the novel flows toward its inevitable crime, the entries take on a frenetic tone. Gradually the narrator’s reliability is undermined so thoroughly that it is impossible to know whether what one is reading is meant to be real or an elaborate fantasy.

A clue to the narrative schizophrenia of “Elegance”—and its narrator’s own sexualized anxiety—is eventually revealed in Meursault’s proposed subject for another book: an account of his decline into syphilis.

—Jessica Loudis

~ by Jessica on December 13, 2010.

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