In the Jungian lexicon, “night-sea journey” refers to a voyage into the unknown, a descent from the day-lit world into murky regions of the unconscious where one interacts with spirit guides and confronts one’s worst fears. It’s an arduous ordeal, but if all goes well, the voyager returns transformed. A cousin to the “dark night of the soul” in Christian mysticism, the night-sea journey is at its core an intensive interrogation of the self; a desperate groping for guidance; a metamorphosis.
Collecting short stories, nonfiction essays and a “portrait gallery” of biographical narratives, Dialogue with a Somnambulist is Chloe Aridjis’s first major book that is not a novel. In the day-lit world we might observe that Dialogue reflects the publishing-industry preference for releasing collections of short works after the marketplace has sufficiently celebrated an author’s novels. (Aridjis’s most recent novel, Sea Monsters, won the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.) We might also observe congruence between Dialogue and Aridjis’s novels, both in their prose style—languid, detached, poetic, precise—and in their shared fascination with the strange, the magical, the revelatory. But as the daylight fades and the prevailing mood of the collection begins to supersede the textures of its component parts, we might come to recognize Dialogue as the haunted, perilous night-sea journey that it very much is.
Aridjis divides the collection into three movements, the short stories appearing first. In several stories, heady moments of enchantment give way to feelings of loss. Consider the collection’s titular story, in which an “insubordinate” plastic bag blowing through the streets leads a bored woman into a surreal corner of Berlin. Enthralled by a man-shaped wax figure, she brings him home. Awkward desire ensues. But the wax man—frequently uptight, sometimes overly melty—isn’t boyfriend material. Domesticity ruins the magic; coldness sets in. (“For the first time ever, I felt I was kissing a candle.”) The wax man, we learn, resembles the murderous somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the classic German expressionist horror film. A fire provides finality to the breakup, but also drudgery, as the remnants of romance must be scraped from the floor.
Or take “The Kafka Society,” another almost-love story in which attraction, fueled by imagination, devolves into dismay. Mrs. Lanska, president of a literary-appreciation club, receives a letter from Maurice, a mysterious 16-year-old who wishes to attend the group’s annual convention. Initial curiosity gives way to daily letter-writing. Mrs. Lanska counts the days until the conference, where she will meet her pen pal IRL for the first time. She applies lipstick and perfume and rationalizes away the age difference. (“After all, hadn’t her dentist just married a cardiologist twenty-five years her senior?”) But the Maurice that appears is not a polite young prodigy, but rather an obnoxious fully-grown leprechaun, wearing a green suit, toupee and “a bright yellow tie with flying saucers.”
“You misled me,” says Mrs. Lanska, deflated.
“You misled yourself. I love Kafka, isn’t that enough?”
In “In the Arms of Morpheus,” a doctor reminds a sleep-study patient that dreams are just cranial static. He insists that she resist the “narcissistic drive to believe that dreams are individual, tailored to all the little dramas in your life.” The insomniac patient flees the study. The torture of sleeplessness may be preferable, Aridjis suggests, to a world stripped of mystery.
The second movement collects nonfiction essays. These, too, explore the longing for transcendence, and the fear that magic may collapse into the mundane. “Into the Cosmos” meditates on parallels between Soviet cosmonauts and aerial circus performers, who court vertigo as they remain in constant motion, their identities “bound up with spatial prospects and limitations.” Artists, she suggests, endure similar torments.
Insomnia emerges as a theme. In “Kopfkino,” Aridjis, confesses ambivalence about undergoing treatment for sleeplessness.
As the tram glided through the city’s dusk, I reflected on how much insomnia had informed my work, both my fiction and more academic ventures–and on how much night had, in general, seeped into nearly everything I’d written…I realised how pervasive a theme both night and insomnia had been over the years, the immediate tropism I’d feel, whenever I sat down at my desk, towards the nocturnal…I cannot imagine ever having a central character who is a good sleeper, who misses out on the godless hours and is unfamiliar with that very particular current of despair.
Fearing that a cure would not be worth the cost to her creativity, Aridjis cancels her appointment at the sleep clinic, just like the patient in her story. She mentions a friend who cannot imagine being a writer without the experience of being alone in the forest, the “ultimate confrontation with the self.” Aridjis’s forest is the enchanted, unsettled night.
But it’s not until the end of the essays section, in the playfully titled but deeply serious “15 Moments of Lightness in Fanny and Alexander,” date-stamped May 2020, that the real depths of the night-sea journey begin to reveal themselves.
May 2020. Ah, yes, that night-sea journey.
“At the beginning of the lockdown,” Aridjis writes, “I began thinking about works that featured characters who suffered some form of entrapment and found release through their imagination.” Despite its heavy subject material–an authoritarian bishop oppresses his imaginative, ghost-seeing stepson–Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film offers comfort in its longing to escape “the oppressive ground pull of reality.”
Two essays, “Baroque” and “The Tension of Transience,” consider aesthetic aspects of Mexican culture, but are pulled into rip-currents of worry over recent gang violence. “What I didn’t know at the time,” she writes, referring to a gunfight she witnessed as a teenager in Mexico City, “was how bleak things would become.”
Finally, Aridjis’s “portrait gallery” third movement turns to the dead. She celebrates Beatrice Hastings, a shape-shifting writer who sustained creative vitality through war, tuberculosis, and romance with artist Amadeo Modigliani. She remembers writer Mavis Gallant, a friend of Aridjis’s family, whose gentle, birdlike manner offered few clues as to the currents of loss and displacement witnessed in her prose. She mourns for Margaret Aberlin, a “lost soul” wandering the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. She laments the violent demise of Green Party activist Petra Kelly. And, in three different pieces, Aridjis invokes surrealist painter and novelist Leonora Carrington, another longtime family friend.
The daughter of poet-ambassador Homero Aridjis, Chloe enjoyed access to an impressive slate of twentieth-century intellectuals. But Carrington rises, larger than life, above the rest. In “A Leonora Carrington A-Z,” Aridjis offers a brief biography in mosaic form. She commemorates Chiki Weisz, the Hungarian photographer who was Carrington’s second husband. And she feels the magic of Carrington’s home, a “chessboard of Mexican sunlight and European shadow” decorated with hulking bronze statues. Carrington emerges as the book’s spirit guide: a figure of otherworldly talent and uncompromised artistic vision, a fearless seer and unrepentant smoker, one foot in this world and the other somewhere far beyond.
Perhaps the repeated appeal to Carrington’s spirit is a plea for strength, here in the murky depths. Back in London, where Aridjis now lives, the pandemic rages on. “Every now and then an ambulance wails,” she laments in “Where Are You, Patricia Sigl?” The streets are silent. Her library-friend Patricia has vanished. Aridjis is beset by doubts:
Is it still relevant? Does it matter?…I work at my desk, in the company of my cat, books and life decisions. Often I despair at being so far from my parents in Mexico and my sister and niece in New York…I can’t help asking myself how I ended up so far from my family and origins.
It isn’t just pandemic-enforced isolation that torments Aridjis. It’s the environmental tumult; the broken government; the sense that whatever one does, it’s never enough. It’s her awareness that, to quote Petra Kelly, “If we don’t do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.”
Aridjis’s novels map the tension between enchantment and disenchantment. Her debut Book of Clouds limned the ghosts of Berlin, capturing that city’s gorgeous hauntedness. Sea Monsters celebrated the entwined enchantments of teenage infatuation and 80s goth-pop music. For each, enchantment is essential. (“Life’s not complete without some kind of haunting,” says Marie, protagonist of Asunder.) Readers searching for a similar vibe will not be disappointed with Dialogue.
But Dialogue with a Somnambulist reveals a new anxiety: that enchantment, however necessary, will not be sufficient. The supernatural may make life complete, but it won’t save us from pandemics, or fires, or ourselves. All the magic in the world isn’t quite enough. This, the bitter lesson of the night-sea journey.