You’ll Never Make Yourself Fall Asleep: On Marie Darrieussecq’s “Sleepless”
By Thom SliwowskiNovember 6, 2023
Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia by Marie Darrieussecq
Translated by Penny Hueston from the French, Sleepless is Basque French writer Marie Darrieussecq’s 18th book. Like an encyclopedia composed according to the logic of dream sequences, it assembles, among other subject matter, insomnia’s cultural meanings, literary history, relation to pharmaceuticals, rituals and cultural forms, various artistic representations, phenomenologies, and anecdotal histories of the bed and bedroom. It also engages with sleep science, as well as insomnia’s relationship to civilizational disorders, to travel and jet lag, to motherhood and infants, to Zen effortlessness, and to the sleep of other animal species. This impressive constellation is interwoven with the author’s account of her lifelong debilitating sleeplessness, her personal history with much of the above, her travels (especially to Cameroon and Gabon), and many striking photographs.
The book handily implicates the reader in its project, transforming insomnia’s experience of time into a formal problem; Sleepless is structured by a logic of enumeration all the more remarkable for its deft reproduction of insomnia’s iterative temporality. Early on, lists become familiar terrain for the reader. They also make up its central theme. Darrieussecq refers a few times to the useful (albeit futile) practice of counting your way to unconsciousness. She assembles a compendium of references: to 4:00 a.m., to the sedatives to which writers became addicted, to lists themselves. In an evocative passage that feels like the book’s navel, Darrieussecq writes, “A list reduces names to objects. Pearls. Stitches in knitting. Notches on the rifle butt. Meaning is erased, lived time is compressed. You can’t think when you’re counting. You can’t turn things over in your mind when you’re chanting. The mind’s compactor gets jammed by the cadence.”
This would be true if there weren’t an opposite force at work here: against the reductive power of listing strikes the proliferating power of categories and of different kinds of lists (“Pearls. Stitches […] Notches”). Together, these make up the catalogs that serve as the book’s guiding night-light. (Apropos of night-lights, she characterizes—in a gem of Hueston’s translation—the always-illuminated diodes of personal electronics as “eyes peeled.”)
Early on, Darrieussecq describes insomnia’s strange glamor. It’s the habit of aristocrats, who “usurp the privilege of staying wide awake” and leave their servants and workers to “collapse with fatigue.” It also plagues tragic heroes and geniuses, who, like Conte Mosca in Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma (1839), quip that nobody could sleep with a brain like theirs. Brilliance glimmers in the dead of night: “Don Quixote is awake while Sancho Panza snoozes.” Of course, this sense of superiority could be a flimsy, hypnagogic hallucination. Riffing on Leonard Cohen, Darrieussecq tells us that this the “last refuge” of the sleepless consists in reminding themselves that “[t]he insomniac is noble; only idiots sleep.” There’s good reason to adopt this mindset. She explains that “[t]o sleep poorly is poorly regarded,” since sound sleep suggests a clear conscience. The wily master criminal Vautrin tells the naive Rastignac in Balzac’s Père Goriot (1835), “Luck comes to us while we sleep.” (Perhaps this is why insomnia feels like being cursed.)
Try though you might, you’ll never make yourself fall asleep. The more you force it, the further you’ll find yourself from dozing off. This is why the insomniac becomes addicted to rituals. Darrieussecq enumerates her own: “I wear earplugs and I turn off anything that emits light. I close the shutters, I carefully pull the curtains shut; my door is covered by a wall hanging. In hotels, I wear an eye mask.” She continues, “I leave a whole collection of herbal teas cooling on my bedside table and take two or three sips.” In a nod to Proust, one of the book’s recurring patron saints, she’ll even “put lime-blossom essence on my pillow. I tie a warm scarf around my neck in winter and a sheer one in summer. Definitely no patterns on my white sheets.” “I am unbearable,” she admits, and her sense of ridiculousness raises the questions: What is reasonable sleep hygiene and what is neurotic compulsion? Should she perhaps stop counting, and just give up—and get up—already?
Eyelids heavy from another night of unwilled vigilance, it becomes difficult to tell apart the practical and the magical. Nowhere is this more evident than Darrieussecq’s use of sleeping pills: “Sometimes all I need is to have the packet. I gaze at it. I know it’s there.” She quotes Proust’s method, which suggests placing a bottle of Trional, an early barbiturate, on the bedside table to give oneself “a sense of security” sufficient “to allow you to sleep.” The image that follows is one of the book’s most notable, serving as a visual litany of the author’s impressive collection of sleep drugs: American melatonin (stronger than its European counterpart), various benzodiazepines, hypnotic Z-drugs, discontinued sedatives, CBD capsules and sprays. The list goes on. Granted, these can and often do ensure a “synthetic sleep,” but only for a time. Like potions, they work partially and suggestively at best. Take even the most powerful central nervous system depressants too frequently, and you’ll grow accustomed to them. You’ll exhaust their magic, and they’ll make you less exhausted than they initially did.
This pharmaceutical litany evolves into an elaboration of the writers who were dependent on pills and vials to get to sleep. Many overdosed—some more than once. Darrieussecq writes that “we find these substances throughout literature, with names like poisons or waterlilies. If Proust needs veronal to sleep, Nietzsche does it with chloral, Jean Genet with Nembutal, and Joan Didion with Pentothal.” Many writers took many sedatives, achieving some rest along the way. Some of them chose the “big sleep” in this way, arguably an elegant—if no less tragic—form of suicide.
Often, magical thinking comes in handy. Better to assign volition to a talisman or household deity than to try and fail to will yourself unconscious. Later sections of the book deal with ghosts and spells, each treated with the author’s darkly funny verve: “‘There are a lot of them’ is a sentence often uttered by exorcists.” We hear about Witek, Tadeusz Konwicki’s character who can’t sleep because someone tucked a snakeskin under his mattress; and of Gabon’s long-suffering Rosette B., in whose ceiling was found “[a]n entire maleficent arsenal”:
Amulets made of, among other things, a viper’s head, a python’s jaws, an owl’s head, scorpions, six twenty-five franc pieces, a pair of underpants, two bats, live maggots, a chameleon, the shell of a bullet, a fish hook, a piece of rope with six knots and a padlock.
Animal skulls reappear at the end, during interlocking meditations on the causes of our collective sleeplessness that link to deforestation and mass extinction by a rationale that will seem either spurious or ingenious, depending on how well you’ve slept.
Darrieussecq toggles between the first-person singular and plural, invoking in turns a memoirist’s recollection and appeals on behalf of all insomniacs—about half of us, according to the author. We feel alone in our vigilance, atomized in our beds, and yet this selfsame experience is something we share. Everybody who has tossed through an entire night knows the feeling of “dead mornings.” Insomnia “clings to you”: “A night without sleep extends into a day without sleep. Nothing time that consumes you nonetheless.” It’s the absence of absent consciousness, the evacuated oblivion of no sleep, that makes it feel so dispiriting to, finally—at 5:34 a.m. or at 6:13 or at 7:00 on the dot—surrender, get up, and start another miserable day. Strange times sometimes crop up of their own accord: “At 4:44 a.m. it’s too early to get up and too late to start living,” writes the author. “The Germans call it schnapps o’clock. When you see double and triple.”
I managed to finish Darrieussecq’s book only when a gig as a movie extra forced me to get up at a heinously early hour. Naturally, I’d fallen asleep easily the night before. I arrived at the film set at 6:00 a.m. for a costume fitting. I spent the ensuing, unreasonably sunny day in a graveyard in Schöneberg getting pelted with fake rain. A mourner at a funeral, I brought my own, very suitable, lamenting face. The film crew’s brio was astounding—almost diabolical. They had, it seemed, evolved beyond the need for sleep at all. Not I. Thankfully, swaths of downtime punctuated the 10-hour engagement. I read Sleepless while leaning on tombstones or reclining on cemetery benches. Drained and dogged, I worked a “graveyard shift” in the middle of the day. I dozed off to the evocative drone of Darrieussecq’s many facts; my half-dreams intermingled with quotes I half-remembered, and I wrote much of this review on my Notes app. Such a hypnagogic reading practice highlighted the book’s masterstroke: its tranquilizing accumulation of literary references, oblique examples, anecdotes, and quips, punctuated with sharp turns of phrase and unexpected photographs. In my mildly overwhelmed, half-distracted state, the book’s materials flowed, stream-like, over my mind, and I surrendered to the lists and lists of lists that form the book’s organizing principle.
Anyone who pulls all-nighters has indulged the fantasy of working while others sleep. Accumulated over weeks and months, all those extra hours make up an astonishing mass of time. But if insomnia is generative, it’s not because it affords us more time. At the end of her book, Darrieussecq reads Georges Perec’s A Void (1969) as an insomnia novel. She posits that what its characters are missing “has been so well erased that the missing thing itself leaves no trace.” Lost sleep gets circumscribed by writing—insomnia is “the sign of what has been voided.” Looking for lost sleep, we find the words that failed us when we were wide awake, staring at a blank page. Writing happens in the crepuscular thickets of non-time: sometimes, for me, because I am just too tired to do anything else. By daybreak, insomnia’s connection to the literary turns out to be something as simple as the fact that work sometimes gets going thanks to, and not despite, our lack of sleep.
Maurice Blanchot once quipped that exhaustion is the start, and not the conclusion, of mental toil. Nobody believes this excuse, but telling someone you’re just too tired to meet them at the restaurant that night is the unassailable banner under which a great deal of writing often gets done. Exhaustion or tiredness (fatigue, in French) is writing’s condition of possibility—something to which Darrieussecq’s book can attest. Insomnia is excruciating, but it is also, for this reason, remarkably productive. Forced vigilance forces you to start writing things down: unable to ever really drift off, you might double down on your mental fixations and put them on the page. All the better for us that the coils of Darrieussecq’s fixation wound so tightly around the subject of sleeplessness itself.
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