In French author Marie Darrieussecq’s Sleepless (Text Publishing; translated by Penny Hueston), her latest nonfiction book in a twentyfold oeuvre of predominantly fiction, she bisects the human animal into “those who can sleep and those who can’t”. As with Susan Sontag’s “dual citizenship”, describing our mortal birthright upon kingdoms of illness and health, a passport to insomniac territories may be thrust into one’s hands without warning.
For Darrieussecq, her own residency is granted after the premature birth of her eldest child: “Our door opened to the baby and my sleep stole away like a cat.” The attendant exhaustion of new parenthood initially masks her chronic affliction – a nightly “hypervigilance” that endures more than two decades later. With this knowledge, Darrieussecq’s first memoir, The Baby (2002), constructed from early motherhood notebooks, becomes a record of sleep’s abandonment.
Among the many torments of pathological restlessness are all those extra witching hours to (over)think, which is perversely one of this book’s readerly virtues. Jenny Offill may lay claim to the literary fragment as the harried writer-turned-mother’s style-du-jour in Dept. of Speculation (2014), but here Darrieussecq wrests it back as an insomniac form. After our watchful scribe has exhausted the sheep, “a benign animal, a herd of certainties”, one imagines her eventually counting insomnolent colleagues, nocturnal neuroses, failed remedies and fantasies of that good night.
Darrieussecq sees sleeplessness everywhere, and on the page it is a fruitful madness. She rereads both literary canon and popular culture through bleary eyes, finding the insomniac in illustrious company. A snoozy Sontag is there – hello again! – alongside the likes of Plath, Césaire, Borges, Dostoevsky. Kafka is the “patron saint” of the underslept, his work “one long night of insomnia haunted by ghosts”. Insomnia’s “champion” is Proust, whose masterpiece is reimagined as In Search of Lost Sleep, in which the anxious child awaiting his mother’s bedtime kiss ushers in a literature of sedative longings.
Still, there is little romance to be wrung from these ceaseless nights. Marguerite Duras’s affirmation of the insomniac’s “higher intelligence” reflects, as Leonard Cohen would later write, a “sense of superiority”, which is the insomniac’s “last refuge”. It’s sadistic, then, to envy the insomniac’s productivity, after Darrieussecq collates “four-in-the-morning literature”, her term for the suicidal urges recounted by writers such as Kafka and Cioran when, unrested, they watch yet another morning break.
Unlike some Maggie Nelson imitators, Darrieussecq commands the essay-in-fragments’ accretive logic, and her stylish bricolage is thrilling in its breadth. Hang on, did she just trace a line from Bloomsbury to the Playboy Mansion, connecting Virginia Woolf and Anna Nicole Smith via shared yearnings for chemical oblivion? This dexterity extends from cultural to tonal poles, aerating the compacted lyricism that conveys psychical torture with welcome spry wit, for example when relaying increasingly desperate bedtime routines and rituals. Apparently, Philip Roth downs his fistful of pills with chocolate soy milk.
Darrieussecq also moves deftly between critical and autobiographical modes, each enlightening the other, as she did so beautifully in Being Here Is Everything, her 2016 biography of overlooked German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. There is refreshing candour in Darrieussecq’s self-inquiry, detailing how she, like so many who find themselves in hypnagogic limbo, seeks relief in risky cocktails of booze and barbiturates.
Insomnia is turned over as both an individual and cultural condition, which accelerates under late capitalism’s blinking lights: “‘To sleep’ or to be ‘on sleep mode’, the same vocabulary for humans and machines, the same requirement for alertness and efficiency”. Moreover, Darrieussecq stresses that the right to sleep is not equitably distributed: the bourgeois author’s suffering is incomparable to those denied safe, comfortable beds in which to toss and turn.
As Darrieussecq shows us, sleep’s healing functions include a momentary reprieve from selfhood. She reveals with painful clarity how the mind warps when this furlough from consciousness is denied. At least the writer can dream that, after cataloguing her wakeful nights, she might perform some exorcism: that “when I hold the printed version in my hands, I will fall asleep”.
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