Books

Book cover: abstract artwork.

Marie Darrieussecq, translated by Penny Hueston
Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia

Sleep is not a trifling topic. “How one sleeps is a very intimate subject. It evokes the bed, family, peace. And the couple, sex.” French author Marie Darrieussecq has barely slept in more than 20 years. She is not alone in this state of interminable alertness – “bedtime,” she writes, “is unparalleled torture for so many people”.

Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia is Darrieussecq’s latest nonfiction book. Originally published in French in 2021, the memoir is translated to English by Penny Hueston. Based in Paris, Darrieussecq is one of the leading voices of contemporary French literature. She has written more than 20 books, including the Prix des Prix award-winning novel Men. Sleepless showcases Darrieussecq’s skill in weaving together memoir, art criticism and journalism.

“Insomnia can begin like a quick jig, occasional worries, troubling but fleeting, and then end up dancing its way into something serious.” Darrieussecq’s insomnia started in 2001, after she became a mother. Up until then, Darrieussecq had a steadfast, even enviable, ability to fall deeply, darkly into slumber. But as her “children learned to sleep, I unlearned it”.

There is no shortage of remedies offered to the sleepless, from the scientifically informed to the homespun rituals. “And there’s always that friend, especially one who sleeps well, who gives you advice, lists of things to do. Podcasts from the Collège de France. Whale songs. The radio, but in foreign languages. Masturbation. Sleeping with your feet elevated.”

Darrieussecq does not yield easily to a life of sleeplessness. She too scavenges for solutions. Herbal teas (“whole fields of them”). Acupuncture. Fasting. Hypnosis. Marriage (“twice”). Psychoanalysis (“which saved my life but did nothing to put me to sleep”). A gravity blanket. A “Bordeaux-based regime”. And yet insomnia “clings” to her during the day. At night it “waits, crouched on the threshold”.

In hunting for a cure, Darrieussecq approaches insomnia from all angles, asking “where does insomnia come from? From ghosts? From the brain? From a troubled soul? From the world?” The book spirals in a series of freewheeling vignettes that explore these questions. We travel with Darrieussecq through days spent at her writing desk, with her family and on the road in Japan, Haiti, Gabon and Jordan. As well as through her nights, in bedrooms and hotel rooms. Those thousands of hours of reluctant vigil. Those dark, yawning “ravines”.

A trained psychoanalyst, Darrieussecq captures the panicked and punctilious life of a sleepless mind on the page. She traverses the real and imagined, the symbolic and mystical, the conscious and subconscious realms. These are not idle hours. “I’ve got plenty to read during my unending insomnia. Every book I open talks about insomnia. Gide! Pavese! Plath! Sontag! Kafka! Dostoevsky! Darwish! Murakami! Césaire! Borges! U Tam’si! … On every continent, that’s all literature talks about.”

Darrieussecq is exceptionally well-read and her prose is roving and referential. The effect is decadent and dexterous. Sleepless is “an explosion of thoughts”. Her brain is brined in decades of books, pop culture and, more recently, the internet. Like a bloodhound, she unearths the most scattershot connections between sleeplessness and art.

Reaching beyond books, Darrieussecq pulls in films, including The Matrix, The Amityville Horror, The Shining and Paranormal Activity. She brings an insomniac’s steady, bloodshot eye to her criticism and reveals each work anew, including her take on 2001: A Space Odyssey: “When it was released, Kubrick’s film bewildered critics; for insomniacs it was the film of their life.”

The narration is high-octane, zooming from big ideas to minute detail within a handful of words. And yet she makes it so easy, so pleasurable to be taken on this ride. The reading experience is exhilaratingly lucid. Darrieussecq’s sentences contain a sharp blade of humour (“Obsessional insomniacs organise their nights like burials”) that twists with the painful truths. Trying to secure a safe passage to sleep is a fraught process. “I only listen to serious insomniacs, because they dance with death.” This is no exaggeration.

Darrieussecq details her relationship with alcohol and sleeping pills. It’s a combination that is freighted with consequence – “I’m losing my memory because of barbiturates” – and risk – “you can die from those memory lapses”. Many have died in the act of “attempted sleep”.

In 2017, Darrieussecq began writing about sleep for a monthly magazine column. Her curiosity and torment for the topic remains unsatiated. Sleep is more than just reprieve from the world: it is also respite from yourself. From the whirr of thinking, of worrying. Some people can’t sleep because they are navigating inescapable concerns, inescapable intrusions: statelessness, homelessness, economic precarity.

In 2018, Darrieussecq covered the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Calais for a television program. “Congolese, Cameroonians, Nigerian, Sudanese, Somalis, Eritreans, Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians, Afghans – everyone I managed to talk to told me they wanted security.”

Throughout her memoir, Darrieussecq writes with great compassion about the sleeplessness of others, of those who do not have a safe place to rest. She writes of witnessing the state intervention that barrelled through the migrant camp in Calais with brute force. “I saw their last place of refuge – sleeping bags – soaked in tear gas.”

She writes with such frankness the reader is jolted, again and again, by the life force that thrums through this memoir. Sleepless is an achingly beautiful and thrilling read. It awakens the mind to new planes of thought. 

Text Publishing, 224pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia".

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