Sleepless is a work of nonfiction and memoir by Basque novelist, critic, journalist and former practising psychoanalyst, Marie Darrieussecq. Translated from French by Penny Hueston and published by Fitzcarraldo, it recounts twenty years of the author’s insomnia. Sleepless opens in a timeless present, recalling past sleeplessness of undefined time, duration and location. Insomnia, as Darrieussecq tells us, ‘occurs absolutely in the present’ (page 13). She also tells us she ‘used to be able to sleep’ (page 13), that she’s a long-term but not a lifelong insomniac.
Accompanying her are other insomniac writers: ‘Gide! Pavese! Plath! Sontag! Kafka! Dostoevsky! Darwish! Murakami! Césaire! Borges! U Tam’si!’ (page 14). The list goes on—Duras, Proust and more: ‘On every continent, that’s all literature talks about. As if writing were not sleeping’ (page 14). Darrieussecq draws comparisons between the processes of sleep and writing, like Simon Morgan Wortham’s narrator in the story, ‘Walser on Walser’, who says, ‘As if the true writer, the sleeping writer, does anything but write’. Writing is certainly not always writing: ‘Eight hours of stagnation for eight sentences’, a day of writing contains ‘kilos of boredom and nothingness, of sordid loneliness, of fear of the grey screen’ (page 209). Writing, like sleeping, is not always activity (and certainly not always the activity it is meant to be), or it is a different type of activity to that which occurs in waking life. For Darrieussecq, ‘writing in one go’, like sleeping through the night, ‘hardly ever happens’ (page 209).
Considering how common insomnia is, she asks where it comes from—after positing some possibilities (‘From ghosts? From the brain? From a troubled soul? From the world?’, page 15), she moves on, allowing sleeplessness to remain as mysterious and unresolved as sleep itself. For it could not really be otherwise. Wandering from topic to topic—more like a fatigued but awake brain than like a sleepwalker—this book toys with the idea of causes, but is not seriously devoted to explaining why insomnia happens. From sleep we can learn when to relax into, or at the very least accept, uncertainty. Insomnia, of course, is far from a relaxing experience. Listing celebrities who’ve overdosed on sleeping medication, she notes that ‘There’s no end of dramatic incidents stemming from insomnia’ (pages 50-1).
This wandering, expansive style assumes a form befitting of sleep, as well as insomnia and fatigue. Sleep is characterised as ‘the enormous absence of form’ in Clarice Lispector’s novel, The Passion According to G.H., from 1964. Vast, unknowable and resistant to formalisation as sleep is, writers of sleep and insomnia in recent years have been attentive to its shape (and shapelessness): from Nuar Alsadir’s hypnagogic experiments in Fourth Person Singular (2017) and Marina Benjamin’s prose fragments in Insomnia (2018), to Samantha Harvey’s insomnia memoir The Shapeless Unease (2020) and Haytham El Wardany’s philosophical vignettes which think with sleep in The Book of Sleep (2020).
Sleepless moves between literature, myth, philosophy and history, as capacious as a brain full of information from multiple sources, drawing quick and associative links between them; I say quick, by which I mean to imply intuitiveness, rather than anything exceeding a meandering, ambulatory pace. This unconstrained form means that we are with a reality TV star, twentieth-century writer Duras, a seventeenth-century French aristocrat, a EuroMillions lottery winner, hearing about early communications of the coronavirus, ‘Trump-induced insomnia’, Aegisthus and Electra, ‘the oldest recorded case of insomnia’ (2200 years ago) (page 26) and sleep deprivation as a still-practiced form of torture, all within a few pages. A selection of successive topics from anywhere else in the book looks totally different.
Expansive as the material is, it is not dizzying, because the information is received (if you are a similar reader to me) lying down. More than that, it is delivered lying down, or with the attitude of lying down, which is to say it follows the circulatory processes of thought itself, of a mind allowed to wander, perhaps not quite in repose, but in a state of relative restfulness, outside the demands of the waking world. For however much insomnia allows for the brain activity of the day, there is something different about night-time rhythms. This is work which allows for rest, even if its author is not sleeping.
Along its many paths, Sleepless takes in embedded attitudes toward sleep and insomnia: ‘The insomniac is noble; only idiots sleep’ (page 21). Going back to Plato there are associations between sleep and idleness, laziness, worthlessness and death—the ultimate state of non-productivity. Associations between wakefulness, sight and insight follow, from The Matrix to Leonard Cohen, on the superiority of the ‘wide awake’ (page 21). Darrieussecq observes that ‘Insomnia and writing both thrive on the fantasy of the chosen’ (page 23). This belies the embedded belief that there is something ennobling about work and effort. Sleepless is not didactic about these points but places material suggestively and allows a reader to draw conclusions. So this is what I get from the unsaid, or the not explicitly stated, for Sleepless is saying a lot through juxtaposition, how one thought follows the next (and what lies in-between, unspoken)—not always linearly, and certainly not with driving purpose.
While Darrieussecq does not know the cause of her insomnia, she observes that ‘since the birth of my own children, insomnia has travelled everywhere with me. It has attached itself to me like a small ghost. It follows me wherever I go. And it has become sly’ (page 103). Her insomnia is somehow outside of her, following her. There is something of the horrific about it, a feeling of haunting, an otherworldliness because there is no explanation. For all its humour, Sleepless is also attentive to the politics and inequities of sleep—questions of existence and extinction on a global scale, human and nonhuman, run throughout. Despite diagnoses of insomnia-inducing hypervigilance—having a head full of books and thoughts—Darrieussecq’s writing learns a form of openness from sleep and the night-time rhythms of fatigue and insomnia. Sleepless is a book which questions attentively without claiming to know, which seeks to make writing a type of sleeping rather than a continually productive activity.
Hilary White is an Irish Research Council, Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at Maynooth University, working on a project called Forms of Sleep: Literary Experiments in Somnolence.
Marie Darrieussecq is the author of over twenty books, including novels, essays, a play, a biography and translations. In 2013 Darrieussecq was awarded the Prix Médicis and the Prix des Prix for her novel Men. She lives in Paris.
Sleepless is translated by Penny Hueston and was published by Fitzcarraldo August 2023.