Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons
In his Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons (1769), Samuel Tissot warned that ‘the devourers of books, who exhaust themselves only by reading, should desist as soon as they find their comprehension more than commonly slow, their sight moaty and dimmish, or their eyes hot and watery.’ Undeterred, I stayed in bed last Christmas Day until 4 p.m., reading Lost Illusions.
On every page, as he documents the misadventures of Lucien de Rubempré, the impoverished provincial poet out of his depth in Parisian society, Balzac seems to pose the questions: can you ever escape from the petty humiliations and injuries of social class? Can you overcome the uncontrollable geography of your birth? A hundred and seventy years later, it would seem not.
Dr Tissot describes a friend ‘lost to reading’:
He was employed day and night in reading, reflecting and making experiments; he first lost his sleep, then was seized with some transitory fits of lunacy, and at length became quite mad, so that even his life was preserved with difficulty.
I had certainly lost my sleep, though sleep is a fitful affair, but Lost Illusions helped with that. If I woke at 2 or 4 a.m., I read Balzac until I was no longer awake. During the day, however, I had a terrible sense that I would never finish the book if I moved. So for four days, I mostly didn’t move. Lucien’s fellow poets tell him he’ll be doomed if he writes a word of journalism. On day five I had to return to my doomed profession of writing the horse racing news.
At some point, my rib popped out. It hurt when I breathed. Dr Tissot hadn’t predicted that, but then he didn’t know about reading on an iPhone in bed. I had a fever too (‘irregular fevers are brought on, not to be traced to any other cause’), so New Year was cancelled. I ordered pizza and got back to Balzac.
‘In six months’ time you will be a great poet,’ Dauriat the publisher tells Lucien. ‘You will be written up; people are afraid of you.’ Six months on, I’m moaty sighted from a week reading versions of the Greek government's proposal to its creditors and their forest fire revisions of it. A line about a gambling tax has appeared, disappeared and reappeared. It's possible to read too much about bloviator banking bullies, who seek to push pensioners and the poor further under the bus. Tissot has a point. On Sunday I'll return to Balzac, hard copy this time, with my ribs strapped up, and look forward to the bladder stones, obstructive perspiration, abscess in the lungs and dangerous constraint of abdominal viscera.