The Pepys of sleep

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I once served as Princess Margaret’s aide-de-camp, which on one occasion required me to arrange her release from prison. More recently I broke into Karl Ove Knausgaard’s house; he was annoyed at first, but then offered me some of his home-made carrot cake. A few days later I was holidaying on the Cook Islands when I noticed Christine Lagarde sitting on her own at an outdoor restaurant. She noticed me and I was about to join her, but something about her demeanour suggested she was happier dining alone.

The Queen’s sister died, it appears, with an unblemished criminal record. Were you to ask the Norwegian writer or the French head of the IMF they would doubtless deny memory of the abovementioned encounters. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Even the fact that I suddenly found myself far from Scandinavia, the South Pacific or a British penitentiary once the alarm sounded doesn’t diminish the power of these events as lived experience. The dream is real. But to fashion dream from reality – that’s where the real work starts.

In 1961, French writer Michel Leiris published a dream diary (of sorts) under the title Nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour. Among the French Surrealist writers, Michel Leiris kept a fairly low profile in the English-speaking world, although he lived until the early 1990s. I first came across him in connection with Raymond Roussel. The fantastically obtuse writer ordinarily kept the Surrealists at arm’s length, a little bemused by their adulation for his work which he genuinely, bafflingly believed to be of mainstream interest. But Leiris won his trust. He was one of the last people in Paris to see Roussel in 1933 before he embarked for Palermo, never to return.

By the early 1960s, Leiris already had about a dozen books behind him – novels, memoirs, poetry, ethnography (or hybrids thereof), reaching back to 1925. This entire period is covered by the entries in Nuits sans nuit… which records dreams alongside oneiric disruptions in the light of day and transitional moments between.

As language rests from its customary labours, Leiris takes words apart, comparing them, rearranging them, rousing the associative logic slumbering in their syllables. He spares no thought for the poor translator who will later have to transport all of this to another language – Richard Sieburth in this case, in a version entitled Nights as Day, Days as Night first published in 1987. With this reissue, and their original translation of Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Bougrelon, Spurl Editions is following the outstanding example of presses who have brought an alternative canon of late 19th and 20th century European works to English-language readers, including Atlas, Dedalus, New Directions, NYRB, Wakefield and Exact Change.

Leiris held dual citizenship of the waking and dreaming states. Freud’s first stab at dream analysis (1900) is impossible to disentangle from the roots of 20th century Modernism, and like any good Surrealist Leiris was au fait with Freudian concepts. This leads to passages of meta-commentary in the text, as if he has somehow worked his way from the bed to the couch before waking. Doppelgängers, the uncanny, castration, the Oedipus complex – there is certainly enough in the clipped poetry of Leiris’s notes for a Freudian to chew on. We find, for instance, actual pipe dreams, recurring images of cylindrical objects, conveniently both phallic and receptive (see also: Raymond Roussel’s crippling phobia of tunnels). The vessel of selfhood is subject to nightly assault, plagued by physiological distress, its defences eminently penetrable. Leiris’s dream self undergoes recurring executions, and he seems to be working through some residual, Dalí-esque guilt in the face of his ungovernable nocturnal impulses. Touchingly, many of his adventures seem to involve his wife Louise, whom he called Zette (here “Z.”).

From Jacob’s ladder to “Kubla Khan”, dreams have provided plot twists or inspiration for major works. With the Modernist breakdown of forms, it is hardly surprising that some writers chose to cut out the middle man and – carpe noctem – share their dreams unmediated by waking considerations. Over a hundred years ago, a largely forgotten German author by the name of Friedrich Huch issued his own transcribed dreams. “They shouldn’t be judged as literary entities,” he warns in his preface, “and are intended for anyone who sees involuntary impulses as a less adulterated testament to life”. It was an approach programmatic for dream diarists later in the century, including creative professionals inspired by the smash cut anti-reason of dream or nightmare in their day jobs – William S. Burroughs, Federico Fellini, Jack Kerouac, Georges Perec. The just-released first instalment of the complete works of Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann opens with previously unpublished transcriptions of her dreams, a process prescribed as therapy while she was receiving psychiatric care.

Leiris, who underwent psychoanalysis around the early 1930s, may also have had a therapeutic objective in mind. Heeding Huch’s implied warning that this form eludes conventional criticism, mapping Leiris’s dreams onto his biography is one fruitful approach to the text. Around this time, for example, Leiris’s dreams get a little National Geographic, reflecting his growing engagement with ethnography. His interest in non-Western civilizations, as with all of his preoccupations, was profound and sincere; earnestness was inscribed into his furrowed features which later so captivated Francis Bacon, his portraits of the Frenchman appearing to draw on some shared anguish.

Ethnography was one of the elements of the visionary journal Documents (1929/30) on which Leiris collaborated with Georges Bataille and others, which further included contemporary art, cinema (both Hollywood and arthouse) and photography in a highly innovative collision of disparate materials. But Documents also represented a schismatic moment, a challenge to André Breton’s pontiffical control of Surrealism. Curiously, Breton only appears once in Leiris’s recorded dreams, talking nonsense:

I observe the following bit of dialogue between André Breton and Robert Desnos, or I read it as if it were a fragment of a play with stage directions:

A.B. (to Robert Desnos). The seismoteric tradition . . .

R.D. (turns into a stack of plates).

It’s a passage that might have come from Roussel’s pen. Elsewhere Leiris’s dreams have impressive walk-on parts by 20th century avant-garde luminaries with whom he associated by day (Jacob, Poulenc, Tanguy) and their spiritual forebears (Jarry, Rimbaud, Nerval). The dream-like nature of waking life is never more apparent than a passage from the eve of World War Two, one imbued with the symbolism of grand historical narrative which finds Leiris literally on the edge of a volcano, on the Greek island of Santorini. Later the forces of Occupation extend their dominance right into his subconscious.

Any reader will recognise the shifts and cuts of the dream worlds Leiris describes – “a Charlie Chaplin, say, dancing asleep on his feet” in the words of the translator. You may even find your own dreams paraphrased. In one passage Leiris describes a “tactile test” in a ruined abbey, where

a number of girls, naked, their faces masked, are gathered into one of the monastery’s crypts; a young man, chosen by lot, leaves a nearby village at midnight and makes his way into the crypt blindfolded; his task is to feel up the girls until he has recognized one of them by purely tactile means, and if this girl also manages to recognize him in turn, he makes love to her.

I once dreamt of a blindfolded old man who had to guess the measurements of a bikini-wearing model using only his hands. If he got it wrong, he had an egg cracked over his head. No, wait – that wasn’t a dream, that was an Italian game show I once saw. The dream is real.

Nights as Day, Days as Night is issued by Spurl Editions on 22 March 2017.

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One comment

  1. john

    A plat ventre M.!
    De la part d’un croulant.

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