I was sick at home with the flu the other day when my daughter brought me her copy of Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs to read. The story opens with Moominpappa himself sick in bed, acting like a baby, afraid he’s going to die and that all the treasures of his life experience will be lost. So he sits up and begins writing his memoirs while sipping a rum toddy and smoking his pipe. Moominpappa has romantic notions about himself. He was born, he says, under propitious stars. Though an orphan, he suspects he is a child of royalty. He admits to making slight embellishments in recounting his life story, but only for the sake of providing “local color.”
Is there such thing as a Protestant Sick Ethic? I feel like a cheat when I read while sick in bed. If I’m reading and hear my wife (a responsible person) walking down the hall toward the bedroom, I’ll drop my book on the floor or hide it under the covers. Not that my wife would scold me for reading, but I can’t avoid scolding myself if I’m caught. If you’re so sick and miserable, I tell myself, then be sick and miserable all the way. Surely, if you’re well enough to enjoy a book, you can’t be that sick, can you? Probably you’re just lazy. If I were more adventurous, like Moominpappa, I might not care. I might read in bed all day long, every day of my convalescence, and never feel guilty about it at all.
Being ordered to read by my daughter simplifies things. I’m only humoring her, putting on a good show of fatherly indulgence despite the fact that I’m suffering. But I wonder if reading while sick in bed may actually be therapeutic. A good book expands our scope of life, and even a minor illness like seasonal flu can feel restrictive. Reading is a form of experience, and if the world as we experience it in a book isn’t quite the same thing as the world at large, sometimes it’s close enough. Facing a storm at sea, Moominpappa asks his friend Hodgkins if he’s ever been in a gale before. “Certainly,” Hodgkins says. “In the picture book A Voyage over the Ocean. No waves can be bigger than those.”
Still ill. Worse, in fact. With the exception of a half hour spent shivering in the summery sunshine we don’t deserve in February, I’ve been laid up all day with fever and abdominal pain. There are two of me in the room now, both sitting on a bed and sipping cups of broth brought us by our identical wives. To judge by his appearance and the faces he pulls, the self in the mirror is feeling better than I am, but who can say?
On second thought, it may not have been the best idea to spend all day reading Borges. When I was a boy home from school with a fever I would lean over the edge of my bed and stare at the carpet. Fevers brought me strange powers of concentration and I was somehow able to visualize – as through an electron microscope – individual carpet fibers magnified to the height of sequoia trees. Below me was a whole forest of twisted corkscrews of steel twenty feet thick. It gave me a sick, dizzy feeling to think of them. I feel something similar reading passages like the following, from Borges’s story The Writing of the God:
‘What sort of sentence, I asked myself, would be constructed by an absolute mind? I reflected that even in the languages of humans there is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say “the jaguar” is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth… A god, I reflected, must speak but a single word, and in that word there must be absolute plenitude. No word uttered by a god could be less than the universe, or briefer than the sum of time.’
Three lessons learned this week: 1) That being sick in exotic locales may feel passively adventurous, but being sick at a hotel in suburban Sacramento is the very mockery of the gods. 2) That in Sweden pickled sprats are anchovies and anchovies are sardines, or something like that. 3) That Jansson’s Temptation should be succumbed to whenever possible.
One of my coworkers is married to a retired chef, a Swede. Anders must be seventy. He walks with a stoop and wears a pink shirt unbuttoned at the top, white-blonde hair slicked back, a golden ouroboros round his neck. An oak from the yard fell onto the house last year and Anders made the repairs himself. Re-tiling the bathroom, he set a massive trilobite fossil into the wall. He pulled the bulbs and wires from the chandelier to use candles instead.
Bottle after bottle of wine appears. Dish after dish of lobster, scallops, veal, and salmon vanishes. We talk about Knut Hamsun’s troubled politics, Stieg Larsson’s posthumous fame. Anders promises to read me Solzhenitsyn in Russian if I visit again. ‘Now drink this akvavit,’ he says, ‘to help with your cold!’ …It doesn’t. The happy dream over, I wake next morning on the blasted heath of my hotel bed with a pounding headache and cough.