By Margriet de Moor
Translated from the Dutch by David Doherty
New Vessel Press 2019
Margriet de Moor’s novel, Sleepless Night, has triggered my relapse.
When I say I used to read novels, I mean it in the way Proust says, in the first sentence of A la recherche du temps perdus, “For a long time, I used to go to bed early.” Reading novels was a habit so deeply ingrained it was inconceivable it would one day cease. Its full stop is comparable only to menopause.
It would be easy and dishonest to blame this loss on the the Internet’s snippets, or on our shrunken attention span. The truth is, my own abstinence is emotional. For a good novel reawakens longing, an ever-receding shore towards which I refuse to strain. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”
Sleepless Night is an emphatic one-night stand, its brief narrative not plot but prism. The narrator, a widowed schoolteacher in her late thirties, stays up all night baking a Russian Bundt cake in the farmhouse she shared with her husband, Ton, isolated but not empty. We learn that a lover, later revealed to be a near-stranger, is asleep in her bed upstairs. With her old dog the woman pads through the house, intermittently seeing the Bundt cake, with expert habit, through all its phases. This night measures out ingredients from the inexhaustible pantry of her past, beginning with Ton’s unexplained suicide at twenty-five, shooting himself in their chicory greenhouse.
Fourteen years on, the narrator’s short sharp loss has only grown in mystery, pinning her to its lonely place. Via memory, speculation, and tidy tactile snooping—through whatever scant clothes and papers she didn’t throw out—she seeks to unpack, to reconstruct: to solve it. She revisits Ton’s sister and stepmother; she tracks down male friends and an unknown woman. Like Proust’s Marcel, she escalates her research, but more patiently. This narrator’s memories of Ton are all strangely happy, moments of erotic yet secure fulfillment rather than the tormenting evasions and suspicions suffered by Marcel. Who was Albertine and whom was she with before she disappeared? Other people are a mystery story, to paraphrase a Martin Amis book title.
Profuse layers of intimate knowledge and intense sensation, of love manifestly requited, blanket her life and defy her husband’s death. Her static present resembles the ice forest she walks through with a lover—the latest of a retinue culled from the personals at the urging of her sister-in-law. The memories that interpolate and suffuse the narrator’s actions, from baking to cleaning to making love, to meeting a stranger at a wintry train station—an echo of Brief Encounter—all are described by de Moor in images both felt and photographic. Here is one of the prisms within its prism:
“We belong to each other. We are passionately in love, as if that wasn’t clear enough. The sheets twisted along with our bodies, got in the way, trapping my legs, and we began to edge them down, shoes still on. Our heads bumped. I raised my eyes and looked into a pair of gleaming, slate-grey irises. The full length of him on top of me, tied and bound it seemed, and I knew he was out to imprint the weight of his body on me for good.” (pp. 102-103)
I won’t reveal whether the narrator solves the mystery, which seems to deepen with every clue. Sleepless Night is a novel for the floating world we live in now, a novel that ends endings, happy or otherwise. We can only have eternal returns, which if we are wise in the Nietzschean sense we immerse in, no matter how high risk the outcome: greenhouse gunshot or long decades till death do us part.
Sleepless Night does end, abruptly, after only 128 pages, good for our shortened attention spans. But I felt its riddle—the word in Old English for “sieve,”—could have squeezed my curiosity for double that length. If they are as real, and really romantic, as Sleepless Night, I will take up novels once more. Margriet de Moor, c’est nous.