From The Guardian:
A bad night is not always a bad thing,” wrote the late science fiction author Brian Aldiss. A long-time insomniac, he appears to have been searching for the silver lining of a condition that, in chronic form, can suck the lifeblood from you.
One does not have to try hard to build the case against insomnia – the way its vampire clutch leaves just a hollow shell of you to ghost walk through your days; the way it trips you up and compromises your cognitive integrity. But Aldiss was after compensation. The “great attraction of insomnia”, he observed, is that “the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instinct and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind.”
Before I began writing a book about my own insomnia, I wouldn’t have paid Aldiss any heed, much less the id that seemed to hold sway over my darkened bedroom. Whatever wisps of a dream managed to seep into my conscious brain offered nothing in the way of solace. Instead I felt enervated and defeated. My bad nights came with no honeyed sweeteners.
Insomnia’s symptoms will be familiar to anyone who has been forced into an intimate acquaintance with the witching hours. Awake all night, I feel saturated with dread, with a gut-churning queasiness stemming from an all-pervading sense of doom. As the minutes and hours tick by, I squirm and thrash and toss, trying not to look at the clock, until, giving up on sleep altogether, I get up.
So it goes, night after endless night. Like Wordsworth, who complained of not being able to win sleep “by any stealth”, I have long been exasperated by sleep’s refusal to visit me, no matter how avidly I court it. My mind will not quieten, will not release my body and allow it to sink into sleep, obeying the gravitational pull of the unconscious.
. . . .
Mathias Énard’s extraordinary novel Compass, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker international prize, is a conscious homage to Proust. The book is set during a single sleepless night, when Énard’s largely auto-fictional narrator, an Austrian academic and orientalist, pines for the unrequited love of his life – a one-time protege who overtook him. As he tosses and turns, frustrated by his enduring pent-up lust, he wallows in recollections of their many encounters at conferences, their late night tête-à-têtes in restaurants, their mutual passion for the literature and music of the Middle East.
Énard conjures very well the exquisite torture of having nowhere to hide from your failings in insomnia, of having to sit with those agitated, uncertain, spiritually naked thoughts for as long as it takes for them to leach away. At one point he bemoans jolting awake from fevered dreams without ever having slept, before trying to convince himself that “a man trying to fall asleep turns over and finds a new point of departure, a new beginning”.
. . . .
The question for any artist or writer is whether the insomniac mind, forced to confront its deepest fears, groping here and there at the veiled world, might offer insights as well as torments. Famously, there are writers who have trained themselves into night-time productivity and considered their wakefulness a gift. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, likened insomnia to a “sunburst” – its blast of light standing as a symbol for inner illumination. Sleep, he said, was “the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals … [a] nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius”. Like other famous literary insomniacs, Elizabeth Bishop, Franz Kafka, Robert Frost, he wanted to be an all-seeing witness, a solitary watchman perpetually vigilant over the sleeping masses.
Link to the rest at The Guardian