Reviewed by Jennifer Croft
“A book is a slow, unavoidable catastrophe,” we read in a late entry to On Elegance While Sleeping, Viscount Lascano Tegui’s fictional 1925 diary. The book is constantly accounting for itself. And though it ambles back and forth between sexual anecdote and aesthetic, or existential, rumination, it hardly feels slow. Its scant 172 pages span the four years from May 19, 18— to May 19, 18—, a vertiginous downward spiral in the life of a lost libertine just down the Seine from Paris. Though it fails, by its own definition, to be slow like other books, it does feel like an “unavoidable catastrophe”; the diarist’s greatest—and final—sin comes almost as a relief after 167 pages of fragmented brooding and foreboding.
Emilio Lascano Tegui (1887-1966) was by all accounts a legendary, if also obscure, figure in the Argentine literary pantheon. The mere fact that he was a self-anointed viscount is testament to his eccentricities, but of course his literary production, too, was markedly odd, and even inspiring, against the backdrop of mainstream Buenos Aires modernism. Of the difference between Tegui and his more famous peer Roberto Arlt, Celina Manzoni notes in her excellent introduction that Arlt’s was a “poetics of labor,” that he traded in “sex and money,” while Tegui wrote of “sex and idleness: a poetics of laissez faire.”
There are many episodes in this diary redolent of sex and idleness, among them an early series of short fragments about falling in love with a lovely white goat; a fit of jealousy at a schoolmate’s inherited cuirass that ends in our narrator buying himself a corset instead—it’s cheaper—and thus comprehending “the secret delectation women must feel as they are silently, constantly, shaped”; an incident of sexual abuse in the narrator’s childhood; a continuation of the story of Don Juan as reimagined by a beloved coach driver, and then as the narrator’s novel, The Syphilis of Don Juan, which is no sooner taken up than it is abandoned.
There is, nevertheless, an equal part of On Elegance While Sleeping that is about the soul, in a surprising mix of sentimentality and cynicism (“There’s nothing more in life than to love someone. To be loved. Such is the happy monotony of my life.”). Such pronouncements endear the narrator to us and make him seem somewhat familiar. He gives voice to the very things we espouse and hope for, but he also articulates the things we feel sometimes but won’t admit to: love is great, and monotonous.
There is just as much about life and death, too, as there is about sex and idleness. Take the following entry:
April 24, 18—
Have I already mentioned that I had a myopic relative who worked as an eye doctor and who fished with a tall reed, looking through opera glasses? His near-sightedness imposed a necessary punctiliousness to his movements and even intentions. As a result, he was meticulous in all things. I inherited his enormous delight in neatness. Seeing is already a pleasure, of course, but clarity makes it a pleasure twice over. Would that I could use microscope lenses as my spectacles. Winter always enticed me to the windows of my room, to watch the sad lives of the townspeople blanketed in snow, and so, in the months beforehand, I always made certain to prepare my observatory: I cleaned the windowpanes with such care that they seemed almost nonexistent in their translucency. Flies, still unaware of the invention of glass, tried to come in from the street, dying from the impact. I’ve watched them dying, in piles, writhing around uselessly, deliciously, trying in vain to prolong their existence. But winter slaughtered them nonetheless in the ambush of my clear glass. And I, behind this glass, watched them die.
Though he departs, as he often does, from among the shadowy figures of his childhood, the narrator is also ruminating here upon his own isolation from the world, a world that he can see but not touch or connect with. He is condemned to watch the flies outside his window die just as he is condemned to witness his mother die at the diary’s opening, or any of the many other deaths that transpire over the course of the diary. (It is his mother’s death that prompts his father, “who was busy dyeing his sideburns,” to tell his son that his “hair wasn’t sufficiently serious for the occasion” and to dye it black. Hair is a recurring image in the novel, and serves as a mark of contingency and change. On this occasion, the narrator notes that the “instability” of his physical appearance, the result of his funereal hairdo, “jolted his inner self, leaving it forever unstable, easily jangled, always rattling around inside me like the clapper inside a bell.”)
This is part of the more extended meditation on the nature of writing that also includes the idea of a book as an “unavoidable catastrophe.” Sometimes Tegui’s pronouncements on style are pithily apropos; sometimes they are directly—and intriguingly—contradicted by the progress of the diary. And sometimes his pronouncements betray his preoccupations with change. Like in Roberto Arlt’s work or in the early poems of Jorge Luis Borges, Tegui talks about a kind of literary revolution that is afoot, provoked by a rapid industrialization in Western Europe that was radically altering the face of Buenos Aires as he was writing this book:
There will come a day when no more poets will be born. The city, in our fearsome urbanized future, will impede their birth. And so, the government will keep the ones still made ill “by beauty and by the past” in gardens, like greenhouses, on the rooftops of skyscrapers, without demanding anything of them—much the way we now provide for the insane—leaving these geniuses free in their cages believing the lie that they might yet prettify the landscape of the apocalypse with their brilliance.
Poets in greenhouses, the narrator in a winter observatory—such is the work of writing, especially at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. In “our fearsome urbanized future”—future to the narrator, present to the author—literature is forcibly removed from society, and writers go on writing in vain. Beauty is lost, irrevocably. The poet is powerless.
This holds true all the way up until the grand finale of the diary, the shock of which shatters all that glass that has separated the writer from the world. “Am I really so different from my fellow men?” says the narrator in the very last line of the book, following a horrifying act of violence. Horror notwithstanding, we’d be hard pressed to argue that he is so different after all—for we, too, experience the same mania to break out of the greenhouse on top of the skyscraper, to effect some change. Even knowing that this, too, will have been in vain
Translator Idra Novey’s prose is stellar. Her translation delights, and renders a diary that is already pleasurably quirky utterly captivating. Inasmuch, then, as an “unavoidable catastrophe” can be a lot of fun, On Elegance While Sleeping is satisfying, even delectable, and a welcome addition to the existing English-language body of twentieth-century Argentine literature.
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