Sleep, or the lack of it, is another modern malaise. The purpose, function and drive to sleep has eluded science for millennia; to unravel its mysteries and deliver its age-old secrets has become the holy grail of modern neuroscience and research. Michael Rosbach, one of three American biologists awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the master genes controlling the body’s circadian rhythms, has declared that all of western society is chronically sleep-deprived.
Though feted as a malady of the technology era, insomnia has always been the unwanted bed fellow of modern man. Some of the most famous actors, artists and political leaders have been unable to court the Sandman, and tales of their insomnia are legendary .Vladimir Nobokov, a famous insomniac, called sleepers “ the most moronic fraternity in the world” and felt that the wrench of parting with consciousness almost unbearable. He wanted always to be an eye awake, a seer in a sleeping world, a solitary watcher among the unconscious.
Vincent Van Gogh was said to have been a sufferer and used to douse his mattress and pillow in camphor, a close relative of turpentine, which scholars believe may have caused the brain damage which contributed to his suicide. Groucho Marx’s extreme insomnia led to him reportedly calling strangers on the phone in the small hours to insult them and wrote: “What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?” According to Marx the correct answer is someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.
The modern-day equivalent is the insomniacal tribe of online social media users, who often commune and direct message in the small hours, propelled by the excitement that they are not alone. As an often-reluctant member of this wide-awake club, I have taken comfort in Leonard Cohen’s line that the last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the waking world.
Medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn
Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, writes about the pattern where medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn. The wakeful hours were spent in prayer, visits to neighbours or engaged in nocturnal shenanigans. He argues that the modern “precious eight hours’ sleep” is a product of the industrial age and the advent of artificial light and that medieval sleepers got closer to nature’s intention than we do. As well as negotiating the tribulations of middle age it appears that my sleeping pattern is medieval, a nightly throw-back to the bi-modal sleep pattern of my ancestors.
Tallulah Bankhead, the early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on a solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to hold her hand until she nodded off
Tallulah Bankhead, the famous early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on the solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to sit with her and hold her hand until she nodded off. A less expensive and modern alternative is to try to nod off to the gravelly tones of Drew Akerman, aka Dearest Scooter, the 42-year-old creator and host of the popular Sleep With Me podcast. This is downloaded about 1.3million times each month, which gives some measure of the need for stories that succeed in boring the listener to sleep. Scooter sometimes calls his show “the podcast the sheep listen to when they get tired of counting themselves”. In Greek myth, Hermes used his inimitable wit to tell stories so long-winded and labyrinthine that they lulled the many-eyed monster Argus to sleep.
Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger
Anna Akhmatova wrote that insomnia is when both sides of the pillow feel hot. The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet about sleeplessness called I wake and feel the fell of dark, when he lived in Ireland in the 1880s. In its depiction of a dark night of the soul, it is unparalleled in English literature. Another poet who distils the essence of the sleepless night is Philip Larkin. He often stayed up all night with his martinis and jazz LPs, and in the poem Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger. “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain-edges will grow light. Till then I see what’s always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…”
Aristotle regarded sleep as a between world, “being as it were a borderland between living and not-living”, sleep being nearer to death than waking, or as Macduff calls it in Macbeth, “death’s counterfeit.”
As a seasoned insomniac, I have spent many years in search for a panacea from the gods, a miracle that would restore me to dream like the Waltons, fast asleep after lights out, cocooned in soporific dreamland far from the madding world. I have tried tinctures, tonics, flower remedies, herbs, homeopathy and acupuncture. I have downloaded apps, subscribed to YouTube channels, chanted and exhaled, twisted and turned and made Faustian pacts for nocturnal oblivion. I have spent vast sums on goose-down pillows and frette linen sheets as Spotify filled the bedroom with soundtracks of rainforests and jungles. The screeching cockatoos and monsoon rains’ aural ministrations have often scared me senseless and led to lights on in wonderland and paranoid checking under the bed for any stray jungle creature.
I have trawled the internet for moon juice and night dusts made by hippies in California, whose contents promised to deliver a nightcap that would lull me to sleep and let me slip slide away into a deep, sound slumber. A cornucopia of soporifics, including cherry juice, magnesium, B6, calcium and chamomile have left me still staring at the ceiling. As a great believer in bibliotherapy, I recently set myself a challenge to read my way through some of the recent publications concerned with the search for an enlightening sleep.
Wide Awake: What I Learned About Sleep from Doctors, Drug Companies, Dream Experts, and a Reindeer Herder in the Arctic Circle, By Patricia Morrisroe
This memoir is a must-read for fellow insomniacs. As a fourth generation sufferer of the plight, Morrisroe approaches the topic with the zeal of a researcher – always armed with her fabulous wit, which percolates the book and gives great light to the dark subject. Her insomnia is personified for her as John Malkovich in the tole of Valmont, the sadistic French aristocrat of Dangerous Liaisons. She realises that sleep, in its various dysfunctions, can be one of the most dangerous liasons of all, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and cancer.
Morrisroe’s book is a personal narrative of her search for that which eludes her, the perfect night’s sleep. On this journey to unmask her torturer, she meets drug researchers and dispensers, mystics and cowboys, psychotherapists and savants, and unravels the notions about sleep that are often founded on fantasy, mythology and marketing. She illuminates the murky world of smart drugs like Provigil, whose maker Cephalon paid a huge fine for allegedly marketing the drug as a wake promoter instead of its FDA approved use for excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy.
She also interviews an anthropologist, who says that in many traditional, non-Western cultures people sleep on light mats, in groups, around a fire and drift in and out of slumber instead of our “lie down and die” model. Sometimes they get up and dance for a while, which is very reminiscent of student life, but perhaps not compatible with a life based on a nine to five. Her description of a restful apartment’s ruination by the arrival of noisy upstairs neighbours, whose children proceeded to stampede nightly at 3am across her ceiling will strike a chord with many of us who’ve endured similar nocturnal nuisance.
Until she found her dream home she lived in a variety of New York apartments; one had such a flimsy common wall that she could hear her neighbour, an elderly Irishman, praying nightly for the Pope and President Reagan. The acoustics allowed her to hear his tonail-clipping, “the nails clattering over the hardwood floor like reindeer hooves.”
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams , By Matthew Walker
Matthew Walker is a renowned neuroscientist and sleep expert who explores 20 years of sleep research in an attempt to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. This book is divided into four parts: the first two are concerned with the mechanics and benefits of sleep, the last two with how and why we dream as well as a new vision for sleep in the 21st century. As a bedside read, it can be dipped into according to one’s curiosity about sleep and the style is accessible, with the author able to demystify complex neurological phenomena.
The first chapter sets the tone, with Walker announcing the sobering fact that “routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer” as well as contributing to your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke and heart failure. Walker explains that sleep remains one of the last of the great biological mysteries. Our sleep patterns are cued by light and its absence, with photoreceptors at the back of the eyes picking up light and sending electrical signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in your brain. This is the master timekeeper, which regulates and synchronises body temperature and blood pressure, making sure that they all operate on the same cycle, known as circadian rhythm.
In an ideal world, without the blue light of digital devices discombobulating the clockwork, when darkness falls our pineal gland produces melatonin which induces sleep. During daylight hours, melatonin production is reduced to encourage wakefulness. Walker is particularly informative about our genetic propensity to be either an owl or a lark and society’s bias towards larks in work-scheduling. This causes owls to burn candles at both ends to fit into the work model, which exacts a huge toll on health and happiness. Despite some of the findings making this night owl a little uneasy, it’s a triumph in its field, where findings have huge implications for health and work life in modern society.
Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems, By Lisa Russ Spaar (Editor)
Rudyard Kipling wrote that words are the most powerful drug used by mankind. This is a beautiful anthology, with poetic greats like Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, Rimbaud and Sappho, Shakespeare and Shelley representing the best of the Western canon, alongside poets from Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Romania and other far-flung corners of the world to show the universality of sleeplessness and what it means to be acquainted with the night.
A restless night of tossing and turning can become, in the hands of Hopkins or Sappho, a visionary and artistic experience that can lead to epiphany or confrontation with existential crisis. The anthology is divided into three parts; Solititude, Vigil and Anguish and Longing and Epiphany and Vision. Insomniac by Sylvia Plath is a triumph of all of these odes to insomnia where Plath summons a nightscape of terror inspired by her own bouts of excruciating sleeplessness. Plath describes the insomniac’s pillow as being a desert – arid and bereft from the oasis of sleep. The insomniac is immune to the sleeping tablets “those sugary planets whose influence won for him/ a life baptized in no-life for a while” and their “poppy-sleepy colors do him no good”
The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole –
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.
Pushkin’s poem loses none of its powerful evocation of a sleepless night in its translation from the Russian in its depiction of the sleepless author listening to the external ticking of the clock as well as the internal whispers of a reproachful conscience.
Lines Written at Night During Insomnia by Alexander Pushkin (Translated by DM Thomas)
I can’t sleep; no light burns;
All round, darkness, irksome sleep.
Only the monotonous
Ticking of the clock,
The old wives chatter of fate,
Trembling of the sleeping night,
Mouse-like scurrying of life…
Why do you disturb me?
What do you mean tedious whispers?
Is it the day I have wasted
Reproaching me or murmuring?
What do you want from me?
Are you calling me or prophesying?
I want to understand you,
I seek a meaning in you.
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time , By Arianna Huffington
The media mogul Arianna Huffington’s book is a call not to lean in but to lie down and sleep as an aid to productivity and life enhancement. Arianna practices what she preaches and sleeps on a bed dressed with her organic cotton sheet range from her Huffington collection and her pillows stuffed with soporific hops and barley. She relegates her phone and electronic devices to the foyer outside the bedroom and engages in a half-hour nightly transition to sleep that includes gratitude journaling, bathing in Epsom salts by candlelight, rituals which help her to greet sleep with respect. Huffington believes that the miracle of sleep allows us to see the world with a reinvigorated spirit, to step out of time and come back to our lives restored. This is a must-read for all aspiring entrepreneurs as this newly anointed sleep evangelist believes that a sleep revolution will allow us to problem solve and dream a new future.
Sleep in Early Modern England, By Sasha Handley
Handley’s book is an illuminating cultural history of sleep, drawing on a rich host of archival sources, referencing Samuel Pepys and the Romantics in an effort to enrich our knowledge of sleep and its roles in earlier societies. The physician and clergyman Thomas Cogan in his The Haven of Health written in the late 1500s presaged this year’s Nobel thesis when he stated “the benefit of sleepe, or the necessity rather needeth no proofe, for that without it no living creature may long endure, according to that saying of the Poet Ovid.”
This piece originally appeared in the Irish Times Book Blog.
That Thursday in May had been sunny and warm and was redolent with summer’s hope after many months coloured by grey skies and lashed by persistent rains. I was sitting in the early evening at my kitchen table replying to an email that I’d just received from a male acquaintance. He had pursued me a few months previously after a fleeting encounter at a party, but for the past few weeks the missives had stopped arriving in my inbox and I assumed that he’d found another target for attention.
He had heard me on a radio show that morning and obviously thought my stock was rising. I was an occasional panelist on a lunchtime show and had been hauled on this time to discuss the new Sex and the City movie. I was deemed to be an expert on the subject due to my single status and my chance encounter in New York with Chris Noth, the actor who played Mister Big. I gladly rehashed the story on the air waves blissfully unaware that I had reignited the interest of a listener who was obviously impressed with my ability to discuss the importance of Manolo Blahniks in the plot. He was glaringly superficial.
On my afternoon flight back from Dublin I gazed out at cloudland and pondered the approach of my fortieth birthday. I resolved to have a great summer and to embrace life with the fervour and gusto of my younger self. I would attempt to suppress the melancholic inner voice which was constantly attuned to the transience and mutability of all earthly things. F Scott Fitzgerald had once declared that there were no second acts in American life. I was Irish and determined to have one.
“At least if this guy works out, you won’t have to change your name.”
“Jesus, Dad, you nearly gave me a heart attack. Don’t worry, this one’s another non-starter. I’m just being polite, he heard me on Newstalk today and sent me a complimentary email.”
“I hope he knows that you can’t boil an egg. You were very funny on the radio today, I have to give you credit. You really gave that obnoxious celebrity solicitor guy a run for his money. I’m tired of all this Mister Big stuff though. That fecker never mowed your lawn.”
I laughed in agreement and watched as my Dad rolled his lawnmower into my garden. He rolled up his sleeves and strode masterfully up and down, occasionally pausing to empty the clippings into a black plastic bag. When I caught his eye from my kitchen table perch he waved and winked through the confetti of grass, his old machine making as much noise as the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. When he finished he drank a glass of water at the sink and I walked around the side of the house behind him to lock the side gate. He smiled and stretched his arm over the top of the gate as he got ready for departure. His big hand grabbed mine in his customary farewell gesture, my small hand engulfed by his, like a bivalve in a protective shell.
I was at work the next morning in my pharmacy when I answered a call from a very distressed medical secretary from the local Bon Secours Hospital. I initially thought that it was a case of mistaken identity when she said that my father was in a critical condition as a routine operation had gone terribly wrong. I didn’t know that he was having an angiogram that day as he had kept it a secret from us in case we were unduly worried.
I stood clutching the phone in the middle of the dispensary for a few moments, paralysed by fear and shock. I blurted out the news to my technician and she urged me to leave immediately. I ran through the busy streets and flagged a taxi in the square. Unfortunately he was one of those overly chatty and officious drivers who was more suited to a visiting Yank longing to listen to the blarney. I bolted out the door when he encountered a traffic jam, thanking him profusely and leaving him a generous tip. I arrived panting and discombobulated at the hospital entrance. It was clear that the nun and secretary had been expecting me, their faces repellent with pity.
I was brought down a corridor to a small airless room where my mother sat, flanked by her best friend Deirdre. She was speechless with shock and kept muttering that the doctor would be out to talk to us. An angular man in scrubs appeared at the doorway. He told us that this had never happened him before, that he had done this procedure hundreds of times and had never seen someone flat-line as the dye was injected. He assured us that the crash team had worked really hard on my Dad and that they had got the heartbeat back but it was very weak. I demanded to see my father and he led me across the hall into the operating theatre where I saw my father lying on a table in his surgical garb. Orbiting around him like planets were a number of medical personnel and a profusion of wires and tubes. They seemed to glide away as I approached. I saw his strong arms reach up and grapple with the ventilator, I stroked his head and urged him to come back. A spherical tear rolled down his cheek and stained the sleeve of his gown.
Dad was airlifted to Dublin on the Saturday evening. I had kept a constant vigil at his bedside with my sisters. It was easy for an insomniac. I constantly held his hand and talked to him and when the silences were unbearable, I read him poetry from an anthology that I had grabbed before the dash to Dublin. It seemed to annoy the nurses in ICU, who spent most of Friday night imploring me to go to bed. My three sisters and my Mum were all around him when his vital signs dropped suddenly on Saturday night. We all took turns saying goodbye as the nurses pulled a curtain around the bed and afforded us some privacy. Papa, mon héros was gone.
The Irish do death well. In rural Ireland funerals are social occasions and it’s not uncommon for some to attend a funeral every day of the week. My father hated the sterility of funeral homes and had frequently expressed his disdain for their lack of warmth and humanity. It was decided that we would wake Dad at home. When my Mum and sisters flew back to Kerry on Sunday, my mother’s friends were in situ in our family home, cleaning and hoovering, brewing tea and making sandwiches. The show had begun.
I flew back on the last flight after spending the day in Dublin with my closest friend. We laughed and cried as we sat in her garden in the sunshine. I needed space from the mania that ensues when a funeral is being organised. My mother was in overdrive and my sisters were busy picking readings, outfits and all the minutiae that are involved with a wake. My ex-boyfriend collected me from the airport at midnight, he drove through the country roads to my house, all was quiet except for my shuddering sobs. My friend Karen had a key to my house and had set up a catering centre in my kitchen, food and drink laid out on the worktop. My kitchen was full of close friends who had waited outside all evening for my return. I was glad to see them and held my own private wake in the sanctity of my own four walls.
We stood in line by the coffin in the sitting room. People queued outside to shake hands with us and offer us their condolences. After a few hours my right hand was bruised from being crushed by the hands of big country men who must believe that their sincerity is directly proportional to the strength of the handshake. Some talked and told me some anecdote about my Dad, a sporting story or a work story, usually humorous. Others just muttered that funereal chant, I’m very sorry for your troubles, very sorry, very sorry. It was strangely comforting. Moments of levity were provided by surprise appearances of old boyfriends in the queue and lipstick was slashed across parched lips in futile attempts at makeovers. The kitchen was manned by my mother’s powerhouse friends. They were busy dispensing drinks, and lashing out sandwiches to those that had travelled a distance. By 11 o’clock they had cleared the house of all visitors and were busy washing up.
Karen drove me home. I would return in the morning to follow the hearse with my family. I needed to breathe and escape the suffocating control of the bottle washers in the kitchen and the general hysteria in my childhood home. We had a glass of wine and several cigarettes in my garden. Karen left around midnight and left me alone with my thoughts in the kitchen. I was drawn to my computer which held pride of place on my kitchen table. I clicked on my photo booth icon and searched for some photos that I’d taken a few weeks previously when my Dad was visiting. He had been amazed at the ability of the photo application to transform a picture into a myriad of finishes, from a soft-focused one to a sepia tinge and to my own favourite, the pop art à la Andy Warhol transformation. So there we were, Dad and I, heads together, grinning from the screen, our moment captured forever in the neon colours and psychedelic humour of computer wizardry.
I searched on iTunes for one of his favourite songs and clicked on The Mountains Of Mourne, a version by Don McClean and turned it up full blast and revelled in the memories. It was one of his party pieces, sometimes sung only after lots of cajoling and encouragement. Other times, when a sudden silence threatened the merriment of a wedding sing-song , he would stand up unannounced and belt out the lyrics in his unique baritone, conveying the tune with sincerity and pathos and bewitching all present with his talent and delivery.
The song is very beautiful, written by Percy French in 1896, the lyrics written in the form of a letter to his lover Mary. The writer is visiting cosmopolitan London and is writing to describe the energy and verve of the capital, the style of the ladies going to balls with “no tops to their dresses at all”, their complexions all peaches and cream and their lips the colour of roses. He realises the artifice behind their paint and powder and wishes that he could be with his beloved where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.
There’s beautiful girls here, oh never you mind,
With beautiful shapes nature never designed,
And lovely complexions all roses and cream,
But let me remark with regard to the same:
That if of those roses you venture to sip,
The colours might all come away on your lip,
So I’ll wait for the wild rose that’s waiting for me
In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.
I couldn’t believe that I‘d never see my Dad again. The man who had always been unequivocally on my side was now lying inanimate in a coffin in our sitting room, his last night at home. My old pal was gone. When I was in primary school, I had the misfortune to be taught for a year by a sadistic nun. She was a thin, small woman with a face that to my seven-year-old mind had all the attributes of a witch from my fairy tale books. Her face was lined and haggard and her eyes were beady and mean like those of a malevolent vulture. She ruled the class with a reign of terror, threatening any misdemeanour with a slap from her gigantic ruler, its menace a constant source of anxiety as it hung over us like the Sword of Democles. At any moment a child could be plucked from her desk and made to stretch out her hand in supplication as the old nun lashed at it relentlessly, pausing only to steady her veil which was sometimes knocked askew with the force of her exertion.
I remembered the day of my encounter with her ruler as I sat that night thinking back on life in the warmth of my kitchen. She was a devotee of a straight margin, it had to be a half inch wide, and all letters had to edge up smoothly to its border, all letters symmetrical – an off-beam M was considered a heinous crime. I was having a bad letter day. My ability to draw the straight margin on the side of the page was being thwarted at every try by my ruler which had acquired chipped indentations on its length as a legacy of the wear and tear on its integrity by a lively seven-year-old girl. My two-toned grey and white rubber was kept busy erasing the wavering margins done in with a pale blue Faber-Castell pen.
To ensure the complete obliteration of my blunder I licked the rubber and saw pieces of the page form into tiny balls and tiny holes open like craters on the surface. Undeterred I finished the exercise and dutifully filled the page with both large and small Ms and sat back and waited for the Sister of Mercy to examine my work. Her approach was heralded by the stomp of her hard heeled brogues. My companion at my wooden desk had her page examined first and her copy book was returned with mutterings of approval.
When her eyes fell on my smudged and deconstructed page with a slanted margin and varying-sized capital Ms I could hear the growls begin in her throat. The book was snatched from the desk and displayed for all to see with its glaring imperfections and was then hurled back at me with ferocity. I was prodded to the front of the class and initially kept my hands behind my back as Sister approached wielding her weapon. She grabbed my right hand out from its hiding place and whacked it several times with the ruler. It became redder and more inflamed with each assault. My eyes smarted with tears but I held them in check until the bell rang to signal the end of the school day and I ran outside to wait with my sister for my Dad to collect us. When he pulled up in his car I could sense his concern when he saw my eyes swollen with tears and my dejected stance as I clutched my brown leather satchel.
I scrambled into the passenger seat and hurled myself on his lap and told him the story of my morning through the sobs and splutters. He soothed me with kind words and told me to wait in the car with my older sister Orla and that he’d be back soon. I’ll never know what he said to my assailant but I do recall that her ruler never appeared again that school year.
I was enjoying my reverie when I noticed that my kettle was boiling, even though neither of us had turned it on that night. The air around me was suddenly acrid and alive with the smell of freshly mown grass. I could almost taste the greenness of the chlorophyll in my mouth, metallic and sharp. I worried that the grief had caused a stroke and that I was experiencing synaesthesia. The kettle returned to the boil after switching off for a few seconds. I feared that I was finally succumbing to a madness from which I would never return. I have a very scientific nature and am always scornful of the paranormal and the magical. Even though I have grown up in a country renowned for tales of the fairies and the puccas, the banshees and the devil I always apply logic. The aroma of the cut grass still suffused the house as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. I felt serene and calm as I lay in bed, feeling that my Dad had returned to bid me a final good night.
Writers such as Philip Roth and more recently Will Self have predicted the death of the novel and have written its obituary notice with Roth declaring that he “was finished with fiction” and that in a few decades the novel will be as irrelevant as Latin poetry. In a recent Guardian piece Self writes that “the omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time.”
There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are the disciples of this new strain of writing which channels the stream of consciousness of the post-moderns with a fiction of the everyday in depicting quotidian reality. The subjects described can often be banal but with these writer’s talent and skill the writing outshines its often plot and artifice driven competitors. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 “manifesto” called Reality Hunger he advocates a return to the “real” in literature and he rails against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus Min Kamp or My Struggle, which has been one of the publishing sensations of the last few years, is a perfect example of the fusion of memoir with essayistic discourse. Frustrated by the confines of the novel to write about his father’s death from alcoholism he decided to write a real account which was unconcerned with literary niceties such as structure and plot and he invented his own language “the banality of the everyday. ”Part of what makes My Struggle so thrilling and hypnotizing is the evocation of the everyday such as diaper-changing, washing the dishes or going for a hair cut in a flat, almost conversational tone. This poetry of the prosaic is exemplified in Karl’s writing and no subject is deemed too secret to divulge. This truthful selling of his soul is very liberating for the reader, almost as if the baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own.
Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outline is narrated by an English writer who has flown to Athens to teach a writing workshop and writes of her encounters on the plane, in the classroom and observations made during evening meals with other writers. It is essentially plotless and imbued with greatness through Cusk’s ability to conjure up these vignettes with her characteristic stylish prose. She said in a recent Guardian interview that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” and that description and character are “dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”
Zadie Smith wrote that she awaited the next instalment of Karl’s volume with all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. The modern reader clearly has a hunger for depictions of reality unsullied by the filters of fiction. The lure of such work is evidently potent and perhaps truth will become more popular that fiction.
No one encapsulates the allure of the Bad Girl quite like Lana Del Rey with her haunting lyrics, eyes liquid with longing and lyrics syrupy with nostalgia as she sings her breakthrough hit Video Games. Well Lana since you asked I’ll have to confess that I more than like the bad girls, I love them. My favourite are the literary ladies who kicked up a storm, lived life on their own terms and have been inspirational for generations of others. On today’s post I’ll cover four such luminaries.
Edna St Vincent Millay(1892-1950)
She was the poet who wrote First Fig which in its few short lines encapsulates her life, where she certainly burnt the candle at both ends. She wrote all sorts of transgressive poetry and plays as well as being a very skilled sonnet writer, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her fourth book, The Ballad of the Harp Weaver. She practiced what she preached and went on to have a life time of bisexual love affairs and was also an outspoken pacifist who sometimes attracted ire. Nancy Milford’s biography entitled Savage Beauty is a great read for anyone who wants to know about the extraordinary life of this poet of the Jazz age.
Dorothy Parker famously said that every morning she brushed her teeth and sharpened her tongue. As a novelist,screenwriter, poet and critic , Parker was notorious as the hard-drinking bad girl with a talent for stinging repartee and for her endlessly quotable one liners. Her poems and stories capture the spirit of the decadent Jazz age in New York, often exposing the darkness as well as the dazzle. The philosopher Irwin Edman said of Parker that her talent was the ability to “combine a heartbreak with a wisecrack.” Although married three times, in fact twice to the same man Alan Campbell, Parker’s romantic entanglements were copious and troubled and all this emotional drama surfaces in her stories. Her vulnerability behind the acerbic manner makes her the ultimate bad girl with a heart. Every book shelf should have a copy of Parker’s collected works, the Portable Dorothy Parker.
Anais Nin (1903-1977)
The author of the erotic short story collection Delta of Venus lived a life that I’ve always found scintillating and fascinating. In an open marriage in 1930’s Paris to an American banker, Nin refused to live a life limited by societal dictates. Forays into the bohemian cafes of Paris led her to Henry Miller with whom she had a very passionate affair. A love triangle developed between Henry, his wife June and Anais, which is the subject of a 1990 film Henry and June, which explores this tangled love story. Her life story is one hell of a read, bigamy, duplicity, affairs and a searing search for self-knowledge make the pages steam with bad girl chutzpah. Noel Riley Fitch’s book is a great read for anyone curious about this most singular literary woman.
Zelda Fitzgerald( July 24th 1900-March 10th, 1948)
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, born in Montgomery, Alabama was an American novelist and wife of one of my favourite authors F.Scott Fitzgerald. She was a true icon of the 20’s and the original flapper girl who bobbed her hair, drank to excess and was a huge influence on her husband’s work. Her life has enough dramatic material to fill many books and with the re-release of the Great Gatsby last year, there has been a resurgence of interest in Zelda’s life. She was an extremely gifted woman who became torn by the clash between her husband’s career and her own talent, willingly consumed in a marriage marred by alcoholism, mental-health issues and jealousy. When still riding the crest of the Jazz age her exploits included dancing on table tops, diving naked into fountains and riding on the roofs of New York cabs. For me she will always be modern literature’s most famous muse, an iconic woman who was the original bad girl.
This summer I’ve noticed a batch of novels hitting the book shelves featuring modern day Bad Girls. Lena Dunham’s Girls shows the New York twenty- something dating scene with a gritty and unflinching reality, far removed from the manolos and cocktails of Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City. This trend in TV drama is also evident in some of the new books by female authors behaving badly.
Zoe Pilger’s debut Eat My Heart Out is an anti-romance featuring a 23 year old protagonist who has dropped out of university and is
holed up in a fetid Clapham houseshare. Read it and lock up your daughters!
Emma- Jane Unsworth’s second novel Animals is a story shaken and stirred by a litany of disastrous nights out and even more dodgy sexual encounters.
Bryony Gordon’s The Wrong Knickers is her memoir of a decade of decadence as a young journalist in London. As an account of Bad Girl antics it’s amusing and well worth a Summer read.
I was very interested to see who made the Man Booker Longlist published on July 25th because it’s the first year that American novelists could enter the ring. There had been much concern that the prize would be be hijacked by the American literary giants and leave British, Irish and Commonwealth authors for dust. A quick perusal of the list revealed that Britain has the strongest representation with six authors, including the Indian born Neel Mukherjee, with one Australian(Richard Flanagan) and the very brilliant Irish author Niall Williams who has published no fewer than nine novels.
Both Ireland and America can lay claim to Joseph O’Neill who is a hotly tipped contender for this year’s prize with his upcoming novel “The Dog,”published in September. When I read “Netherland” back in 2008 I was blown away by this writer who is incapable of writing a boring sentence and by the story of family, identity and politics cleverly crafted by O’Neill. When I saw his handsome face beaming from a page in Vogue and read the accompanying piece about his apartment in the Chelsea hotel and his very glamourous lifestyle it is safe to say reader that I was smitten. I brought his name to the attention of the literary committee of Listowel Writer’s Week that year to have it included in the contenders for the Kerry Group Fiction Prize. There was some debate on whether he was Irish and therefore eligible to be considered.
As a great lover of Fiction and no stranger to embellishment and with sheer brass neck I solved all dispute by declaring him to be a second cousin from a very tangled West Cork ancestry. The debate was solved and Joseph O’Neill flew to Ireland that year and collected the Kerry Group Fiction Prize for “Netherland.”
The Listowel Arms was rocking that night with opening night festival celebrations and like all great liars I trawled the bar area in search of the great Joseph so I could fill him in on our fake ancestral lineage. Unfortunately one of the committee was with him and with great Kerry theatricality introduced Joseph to his cousin Anne.
I was in an advanced state of exhaustion at that stage having had an extremely late night the previous night with a friend from London who had travelled to Listowel for the festival and like myself had a great ability to quaff vino and avoid bed.(Marella, you know who you are)
The great novelist ran with the plot, greeted me with a familial hug and even asked about the mythical Cork uncle. At that point a crowd had gathered, buoyed by the emotional story of the long lost cousin’s meeting. With the usual mass hysteria we were declared to be the image of each other, very alike around the eyes, another lady declared that we were like sister and brother. On the night in question my eyes were afflicted with an exhaustive stare which bore no resemblance to the novelist’s intelligent peepers.We had a drink outside with a few of my crew, a photo was taken, literature was discussed, I might even have sung Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel” really badly for him. It was a family affair. O’Neill for the Booker 2014 !
On holidays in France last month I noticed a flurry of activity in the lobby of our hotel in Juan Les Pins. Red carpet was being rolled out the door and young women clad in designer clobber clicked around the foyer in vertiginous heels having animated discussions in their iPhones and clutching clipboards. I immediately sniffed a party of the private variety and the antithesis of the events I attended in Rathmines in the mid eighties where groups of students sat on bedsit floors puffing ciggies and watching their harp stash.
I’ve perfected the art of walking by door people with an air of possession. Book in hand I strode past the PR beauties muttering to myself a little and ignoring the chorus of madams emanating from the entrance. Once out on the beautiful courtyard over looking the beach I was offered a glass of champagne by a friendly waiter. All attendees were extremely chic and all the beautiful people mingled, air-kissed, laughed and posed for photographs with the confidence of movie stars.
I was beginning to stand out a little, cutting a lone figure centre stage with just a Tim Winton book and a glass of bubbly. I noticed a very dapper man sitting near by talking to a woman. He was clearly american and a little intimidating, but I had to ask someone where Tim Winton was.
” Excuse me, but would you know where Tim Winton is? I’d like him to sign my book?” I asked.
“Tim Winton isn’t here. He didn’t win the prize. Whit Stilmann did.” he replied.
“I’ve never heard of Whit Stilmann.” I said.
“I’m Whit Stilmann.” replied the famous American director.
I began to stutter and splutter and attempt to dig myself out of the crater sized faux pas, much mentioning that I love books and films followed and that I’d adored The Last Days of Disco, never realised that it had been released as a book.
Whit took it all with a sanguine and languid sense of humour and later talked about Gatsby and his love of Paris. I introduced him during the course of the evening to my friend Pauline. It was a combination of the rosé, the champagne, the sheer thrill of meeting a famous director but words failed me as my brain scrambled for his first name.
Whit is not part of the normal vernacular in Ireland and I struggled to remember this first name. My brain strayed into the literary memory and I found myself introducing Whit Stilmann as Walt Whitman. It could have been worse, Walt Disney and Ben Stiller were waiting on the tip of my tongue.Don’t blame it on sunshine, don’t blame it on moonlight, blame it on the rose.