BTBA 2011 First Look-Viscount Lascano Tegui’s On Elegance While Sleeping

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Viscount Emilio Lascano Tegui~Argentina

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Bougival is full of old women.  Their big faces fill the windowpanes.  My God, how old they are!  Not even death can get their attention.  They’ll only die once they finally tire of listening to the ringing of the village bells.

Emilio Lascano Tegui of Argentina, self-proclaimed Viscount, was a man that lived the life of an adventurer. Yes, he was a writer.  Yes, he was a witness to the world he lived in, but that never stopped him from creating a world others wanted to live in.  Writer, journalist, painter, diplomat, mechanic, decorator and…dentist?  Participating in professions from the banal to the grandiose, he never waited for life to come to his door.  He was the consummate writer able to make his own experiences and turn them into writing that is utterly compelling, funny, full of depth and sensitivity.  No need for me to hide the fact that his book, On Elegance While Sleeping, is one of my top choices out of all the titles on the longlist.  Once he moved to Europe as a translator for the International Post Office, he began writing as a career.  He befriended Picasso and Apollinaire, fancied himself a Viscount(a title in British nobility) and enjoyed life as the dilettante that he was.

What is magical about his fictional diary of a man’s slow fall into madness is that he renders it relatable.  A man whose prized possessions are sex and elegance, Tegui offers madness and eloquence through his short diary entries.  We are witness to his surreal proclamations of love for a goat alongside his wistful musings on the loss of elegance in society.  All done with an impeccable writing style that is unique without being verbose or self-conscious.  His narrative skill is evident in this passage where he introduces a friend, Raimundo:

December 31, 18–

We had a large carriage depot in Bougival.  Come evening, these heretofore idle carriages would depart for Paris.  They were our town’s only night owls.  In a cafe, “Au Rendez-vous des chochers,” the drivers would get together for wine.  Among those wide, paunchy men with their flush faces, I met one who was exceptionally wide, paunchy, and flushed:  his face was a beet with two little holes that opened to allow his eyes to peer out.  On top of that, these eyes hid under a single eyebrow, life the forehead-strap on a muzzle.

The man was a rag torn off some holy cassock.  A defrocked priest.  He took me along with him until the road to Mont Valerian sometimes, recounting the secrets of his adventurous life as a coachman, enjoying himself immensely, as if he though of himself as one of the Eugene Sue characters that appeared weekly in the newspaper serials.

The reader learns so much here–about his town, the friend–in such a concise and engaging way, it’s difficult not to appreciate the density of his marrowy style.  There is a hint of allusion to the work itself which reflects expresses the character’s attempt at making art our of his illness, syphilis:

May 19, 18–

“I’m thinking about writing a book,” I said, “a book that would be a sort of symptomatic journal of my disease that could serve as a source of information for doctors and literary types both.  This idea came knocking at my door as twilight fell…I let it seduce me as though I were just another conquest…Even though I know that writing a book is the greatest shame than an original mind can bring upon itself.”

“But–I want to write a book, Raimundo.  A book that will make my illness into an iridescent fantasy…”

This idea of writing a book about an illness gets to a core theme of writer as detached observer and corroborator, forever in isolation while trying to convey the experience of actually being there.  As soon as the idea is set into action in the diary, he simultaneously mourns the loss of poetry of writing while contemplating the role of writer:

November 6, 18–

They (writers) publish books for the pleasure of seeing them printed and bound, without remembering the saddest aspects of their lives will end up contained in those pages.

But wouldn’t my book be a result  of my desire to commit a crime, and thus be part of it?  Wouldn’t every page be a sliver of glass in the daily soup of my fellow citizens?

A book is the vegetal pulp left behind by man.  And now, after countless centuries of digging up and studying palimpsests and engraved tablets, they’re saying that we should just allow those dead, abandoned cities to become buried again beneath the windblown sentiment…

A book is a slow, unavoidable catastrophe.

And at the end of this slim novel, Tegui gives us that catastrophe in violence and in our testament to his book, to his’ unavoidable catastrophe.’  As far as Argentinian writers, Tegui may not be well know in the canon of twentieth century Argentinian literature, but he and this masterpiece deserve a place in it.  Indra Novey’s translation is superlative and I am thankful that for her skill as a translator.  On Elegance While Sleeping has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf as well as one of the most quote-worthy books I own.  I only hope that there is more of Viscount Lascano Tegui’s to be unearthed and shared with those of us who crave more.

On Elegance While Sleeping
by Viscount Emilio Lascano Tegui
Translated by Indra Novey
Dalkey Archive Press
Paperback, 172 pp.
ISBN: 9781564786043


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