The narrator/diarist of On Elegance While Sleeping personifies a particular type current in the yellow literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - that of the immoralist. The Dalkey Archive translation makes reference to Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Lautreamont’s (another South American of invented nobility) Maldoror, and we also see in the novel a direct association with the character Lafcadio in Gide’s Caves du Vatican (The Vatican Cellars). We perceive in these works the literary reflection of the precocious violence of the naïve genius Rimbaud, and the contempt for bourgeois society evident in the works of Jarry and the brief florescence of the Dadaist agitators, with their stated goal of disturbing the ceremony. In his Foundations of Modern Art (1931, revised 1952), Ozenfant draws parallels between Gide’s antihero and the surrealists, noting commonality in “their particular turn of thought: anxious, elegant, melancholy, tangential, incidental, elliptical, their taste for evoking emotion through what is singular: their oneiric glossolalia: and their interest in the unmotivated act.” These are also the characteristics of the pale criminal with the delicate hands at the heart of Tegui’s novel.
This decadent novel indeed opens on a surreal note. In his diary entries, the protagonist rarely speaks of immediate experience, but rather uses the journal as a means of reminiscence. He recalls his youth in the town of Bougival, down the Seine from Paris. Down the river would come the corpses of the drowned (and implicitly, those of the murdered and the suicides): our young hero would count coup by fishing the bodies, with their hands waving from the muck, from their entanglement in the mill wheel, at the same time slipping a business card from the town mortician in the pocket of the bloated corpse. This scavenging of the human effluence issuing forth from the great metropolis is only the beginning of a catalogue of transgressions against bourgeois conventions that will include pederasty, homosexuality, voyeurism, transvestism, bestiality, rape and murder. There is, in the narrator, a random bipolarity between the extremes of ironic dispassion (speaking of a North African café and a local brothel – “We felt entirely at home in both places: we took off our jackets in one and our pants in the other”) and a sickly sentimentality (“There’s nothing more in life than to love someone. To be loved. Such is the happy monotony of my life.”). The only other significant character is the coachman Raimundo, who has his own obsessions with the debauchery of Don Juan.
The eyes and ears are passive. The hands are a mode of action. The protagonist fusses over hands, particularly his own. He is a manicured dandy, a solipsist of whom someone exclaims on the first page “He cares for his hands like a man preparing for a murder.”
The journal moves between brief reminiscences and opinions, mostly of a carnal nature and evident of a healthy dispassion towards the suffering of others (he enjoys news of disasters and fatalities: “what are a few deaths compared to the moral serenity…provided to people like myself”). At last the diarist comes to that moment, the penultimate step before the summit of his debaucheries and immoralities, that inevitable Nietzschean moment which calls for the courage of the knife:
Something like that, flamboyant, coarse, unexpected – something that will impose its tyranny over my life without question. I’m going to kill someone.
He finds his victim easily enough. It is the perennial victim of the 20th century, that one small and insignificant person, deemed valueless, whose murder will be magnified over the century by the thousands and the millions, depersonalized by neglect and violence into non-existence:
As I passed her in the market, I found her concentrating heavily on some change she’d been thrown. She counted it coin by coin, like a child or a savage. Her slowness in counting, her obvious limited ability, made up my mind. It authorized my act. To unburden humanity of an imperfect being: a weakness.
From Baudelaire on down, the decadent illustrates the most immaculate morality in his immorality. For what is a greater morality, than to wish to excise the malignancy, the sickness, or, like the Gnostic Sethians, to exterminate it by exhausting it? Tegui’s pale criminal accepts the knife with gusto, and is rewarded by the indifference of his fellows. In the aftermath of the bloodbath, he walks the streets and notices the dismal face of the town clock, and realizes that he, the murderer, is of the common run of mankind.
Dalkey Archive’s resurrection of Tegui’s novel almost a hundred years after itscomposition is a noteworthy event, as we can see by the notices it has generated. It shows that a gem may be pulled from the muck and cleansed, and put forth for consideration by a new and worthy audience. Idra Novey’s translation perfectly captures the essence of the author’s words and sentiments.