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Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia

Marie Darrieussecq

Translated by Penny Hueston

The world is divided into those who can sleep and those who can’t.

What is it like to live with chronic insomnia? For Marie Darrieussecq, not sleeping began after the birth of her first child and continues more than twenty years later.

In Sleepless, she recounts her own experiences alongside those of fellow insomniacs, mostly writers, some of whom claim a connection between insomnia and creativity. With her inimitable humour, she describes her countless attempts to find a remedy, including consulting a somnologist.

Darrieussecq discusses bedrooms, beds, the homeless, refugees, trauma, our wakefulness online, and how our relationship with animals is connected to whether we can sleep.

Sleepless will awaken you to the otherness of our world.

Insomnia feeds off this bewildering feeling: there is something else.


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Marie Darrieussecq
About the Author

Marie Darrieussecq was born in Bayonne in 1969 and is recognised as one of the leading voices of contemporary French literature. Her first novel, Pig Tales, was translated into thirty-five languages. She has written more than twenty books. Text has published Tom Is Dead, All the Way, Men, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Our Life...

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About the Translator

Penny Hueston’s translations from French include novels by Emmanuelle Pagano (One Day I’ll Tell You Everything), Patrick Modiano (Little Jewel), Sarah Cohen-Scali (Max) and Raphaël Jerusalmy (Evacuation). She has translated six books by Marie Darrieussecq—All the Way, Men, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Our Life in the Forest, ...

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Text publication date:
1 August 2023
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Praise for Marie Darrieussecq

‘Amid the torrent of publications in the new sleep science, this is the only book I know that concedes to sleep its proper majesty and its own dark poetry.’

Sleepless is a feast. Darrieussecq brings a world of personal experience to an examination of insomnia from every possible perspective, from the bodily to the cultural. Her range of reference is extraordinary. The result is intoxicating.’

Sleepless is intellectually fierce, but also funny. Wide-ranging and constantly surprising in its interweavings, it is built from beautiful sentences as much as big ideas. It is a book that stays with the reader long after it is read.’

‘Darrieussecq is one of the most prolific and distinguished living writers in France with a truly impressive body of work. All her familiar acuity, humour, humility and intensity are evident in Sleepless…Darrieussecq does not pull her punches…Anyone who’s been bludgeoned by insomnia will find their experience in this book, graphic and fierce. Its tone is often agitated, alarmed, by virtue of its candour. How could it not be? Yet it is so eccentric, intelligent and searching that it never gets swamped and never swamps. Its energy is electric, its prose musical. And Penny Hueston’s translation superbly gets to all that’s spiky and wry in Darrieussecq’s prose, as well as all that’s immensely tender.’

‘Written in clear but sometimes almost dreamy prose, there are moments when the sheer tiredness comes off the page and becomes felt. But there’s affirmation too, for out of this experience has come an intriguing portrait of the Kingdom of Insomnia.’

Sleepless…captures the skittering, jittery mood of an insomniac’s “white forgetfulness”, of what it’s like to be simultaneously over-stimulated and over-stretched.’

‘Darrieussecq is exceptionally well-read and her prose is roving and referential. The effect is decadent and dexterous…The reading experience is exhilaratingly lucid…[She] writes with great compassion about the sleeplessness of others, of those who do not have a safe place to rest…[and] 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.’

‘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…[Her] stylish bricolage is thrilling in its breadth…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.’

‘The translation by Penny Hueston is pellucid, with snatches of prose-poetry that evoke the limbo land the sleepless inhabit…The book is a treasure trove of literary fragments. One of the solaces of literature is the realisation that others in times long gone have felt what we are feeling now…Darrieussecq conjures a cultural kaleidoscope…Darrieussecq shares with us an elegant journey that finds beauty in the despair of insomnia.’

‘A funny, moving, metaphysical and novelistic self-portrait that is also a portrait of our times.’

‘Dancing on and off the page, appearing, disappearing, and re-emerging throughout her book, Darrieussecq spins a heady web…Intoxicating and disorientating, her style works perfectly when she writes about the spiralling anxiety of insomnia, and the dizzy voids of sleeplessness. It lets her capture the internal cacophony, the sense of isolation and the tide of dread that destabilises those of us who battle for sleep…Darrieussecq’s writing is faultless.’

‘…This wonderful work of nonfiction is a veritable prism through which interconnected and complementary ideas are refracted simultaneously…This book is as lucid as it is literary, and it is not just for insomniacs. If you’ve ever felt existential dread prompted by the threats of the Anthropocene, or wondered about the 4am lives of 20th-century writers, you’ll find much in Sleepless to contemplate and enliven…’

‘[A]n intellectually rich, formally inventive consideration of insomnia…Bad sleepers do not necessarily make great writers, and vice versa, but in Sleepless, Darrieussecq shows she is a great writer, one who is very much awake, and that maybe all those nocturnal hours were not lost after all; she has provided us with a luminous exploration of life after dark.’

‘A sleepless text, company and comfort for insomniacs, and instruction for those heading off to a good night’s sleep. It is ever-awake and ready for the exhausted and the good sleepers alike to pick up in the morning.’

‘A masterful work on the art of sleep.’

‘An exciting and poetic work, both an intimate narrative and a meditative essay.’

‘A hypnotic, inexhaustible book.’

‘An exhilarating book that kept me up and got me thinking.’

‘A personal meditation that opens your eyes, in every sense of the word…Beware: this book may make you lose sleep!’

‘In this book on insomnia, part essay and part autobiography, Marie Darrieussecq calls on many writers who have suffered from not closing their eyes at night (‘four o'clock in the morning literature’); she lists the techniques she has tried in vain in order to get to sleep, and talks frankly about her addiction to alcohol and sleeping pills. She links her personal case to the global syndrome of our era—permanent internet connection.’

‘Marie Darrieussecq opens our eyes, although all she wants to do is close her own eyes, and sleep…She gives us an account of everything to do with insomnia, both the rational and irrational aspects.’

Sleepless is an wonderful book, between prose and document, reflection and quotation, ranging from Kant to the film Alien, from Kafka to Gilles Barbier, from Gabon to the Basque country, and through various hotel rooms occupied by sleepless nights…If what we read is extremely intimate and personal, everything about us, everything in us, can also be found in these pages. One can read Sleepless to project oneself into an insomniac sister; one can read it for the author’s sparkling stories and analyses, for her incredibly smart readings of Kafka and Perec, or for her reflections on capitalism, burn-out and the race for productivity that repudiates everything that does not fit into its master plan. Above all, one can read Sleepless for the staggering object it is.’

‘What a delight: a book that is erudite, funny, sensitive, moving, forthright, intimate.’

‘[A]n anatomy of insomnia in the tradition of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. An eclectic mix of literary criticism, medical history, social commentary, travelogue and phenomenology, Sleepless is organized around Darrieussecq’s many stratagems for achieving a state of being many of us take for granted…For her readers, whether they are insomniacs or not, Sleepless is a meditation on a condition that is more widespread than is generally acknowledged, and impinges, at least philosophically, even on those who do not have it.’

‘Marie Darrieussecq’s elegantly fitful book, Sleepless, now perceptively translated into English by Penny Hueston…Sleepless tells the story of this near-unrelenting affliction, a recount couched in prose that is, by turns, distractedly diaristic, a sociopolitical tract, grimly funny, and heartbreaking—all inflected by the dreamy logic of chronic wakefulness. It is the kind of book likely to keep a reader just as wide-eyed…Hueston—a long-time collaborator—has produced an English translation that retains all of Darrieussecq’s scatter-brained eloquence…Hueston has also managed to translate the book’s brief—but refreshing—moments of humour (a notoriously difficult feat)…Hueston has carried over Darrieussecq’s prescient wit, and rendered it in English with the lightest ironic lilt….Insomnia is hell, but with Darrieussecq as our Virgilian guide, we’ll return to the earth endowed with brighter eyes.’

‘Desperate to find respite in the form of affinity, Darrieussecq has created a rich literary archive of insomnia. Beloved writers are crowned insomnia’s ambassadors…Darrieussecq’s memoir is a meditation on the pleasure of sleep stolen, and a reminder to relish every moment of rest.’

‘While her sociological and anthropological studies are engrossing in their own right, it is the creative nuance of Darrieussecq’s prose, its fragmentary structure, and the lucid, lyrical translation by her longtime translator Penny Hueston, that successfully weaves them together.’

‘The poetic, stream-of-consciousness style resonates and embraces the shared human experience of sleeplessness…The delightful enjoyment of Sleepless is the author’s unique, unexpected, and subjective point of view and voice, translated into English from the original French.’

Sleepless treats insomnia as a question with no answer, an itch with no salve…Darrieussecq’s treatment of her own sleeplessness is high-pitched and maximalist; her treatment of others’ is measured, blunt and broad. The discord is eloquent, putting her unrest into chastened relief…Sleep lends itself to easy allusions—escape, rebirth, death—but in the contrast between her own plush insomnia and the wakefulness of others, Darrieussecq suggests a sharper, and timelier metaphor. Rest and its deprivation, here, become proxies for inequality…In another world, Darrieussecq suggests, sleep might be a tool for empathy, a reminder of how intimately we are bound together in our wakefulness and weariness.’

Sleepless treats insomnia as a question with no answer, an itch with no salve. Darrieussecq’s account of it is by turns hectic and meandering and erudite and feral: Here is, word by word, the addlement of the endlessly wakeful…Sleepless is at its most lyrical when it is at its most intimate—a primal scream, rendered in words.’

‘Darrieussecq offers a wide-ranging reflection on insomnia — her own and other people’s — which approaches sleeping and not sleeping from multiple angles. Along the way, she considers literary representations of insomnia, remedies (some more effective than others) and much more besides.’

Other editions ofSleepless
  • Sleepless
    ISBN: 9781922791528
    1 August 2023
    Buy ebook