REVIEW: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
There are rare books that I find difficult to summarize and evaluate, books that are so beautifully and painstakingly written that they deserve to be in a class unto themselves. Jean-Dominique Bauby’s wry masterpiece and memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is such a book, if not the definition of this class.
Bauby was the prestigious editor of Elle magazine when he suffered a life-altering stroke, one that shuttered every function in his body except that of his heart to beat, his blood to flow, and his left eyelid to close. Locked up in his thoughts and a rudimentary communication system, wherein every friend, nurse, and relative was forced to spell the French alphabet in order to help Bauby spell out words and phrases, the young man struggles to find purpose and joy – not only in life itself, but in the act of living.
Bauby’s is a sad story. Every chapter is laced with melancholy. I stopped many times in the middle of passages to marvel at the construction of this book. Bound to a willing assistant, Bauby formulated each sentence in his mind, then waited for the young woman to list the letters of the alphabet over and over and over again. When she arrived at the letter he needed, he would blink his eyelid. I sometimes wondered if perhaps, due to some tick or irritation, he accidentally blinked when he didn’t mean to, muddling the word and the heart of his message.
As you might imagine, this is a brief book, but no less rich in meaning and beauty than if it contained another 20,000 words. Confined to a bed, to a wheelchair, to a room, to a corridor, Bauby fishes in his imagination for the streets of Budapest and Tokyo. He fantasizes about killing the more thoughtless attendants who help him perform the most basic bodily functions. He pines for conversations laced with sarcasm. He dreams of answering his children when they call on the phone. He is still human, after all, still with the same undying wit, the same niggling irritations, the same aspirations and desires as before.
Jean-Dominique Bauby lived to see the first ten days of his book’s publication. He passed away in 1997 due to a sudden bout of pneumonia. Yet his memoir lives on with so much brightness, so much hope, that I find it easy to believe that somewhere, the relentless spirit of this man is walking, and sparring, and rejoicing.
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