The diving-bell and the butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated by Jeremy Leggatt
London: Fourth Estate, 1997 ISBN 1857027795
The front cover of this book has the following blurb from the Financial Times - "One of the great books of the century" - so there must be something special about it, right? Well....yes, actually.
Jean-Dominique Bauby was a Frenchman who had the misfortune to suffer a stroke, and who awoke from his coma to find he was a victim of locked-in syndrome, where he was almost completely immobile and without speech, but with his mental faculties fully intact. In Bauby's case, practically the only movement he could make was to move his left eyelid. The book came about by someone reading the letters of the alphabet and Bauby blinking when they said the correct one, so piecing the writing together must have been a painfully slow process for both the author and the transcriber.
And what has Bauby "written"? The title of the work was chosen to indicate that while his body is immobile and sunk beneath the waves of locked in syndrome (the diving-bell), Bauby's mind is free to go wherever it pleases (the butterfly). The outcome is a series of vignettes that describe his life as it was while writing the book (after the stroke) and incidents from his former life that come back to him for various reasons, as well as reports of dreams he has had or that he wishes are to come.
The circumstances of its production are what makes this an extraordinary book - one of the vignettes describes how Bauby goes over what he is to "write" again and again in his mind, editing and memorising it, so that the transcription process is as painless as possible.
Pain is a recurring theme throughout this book - the physical pain of being unable to move causing pressure spots, the immediate mental anguish of not being able to change channels on the TV, or draw the blind, or tell the neighbouring room to turn down their blaring radio, and the existential pain of seeing his children but not being able to communicate fully with them, or passing his old workplace (he was editor of Elle magazine) and wondering what's happening there.
Like many works that deal with memory - which, as Bauby points out, is really all he has left to him after the stroke - it is the small things that have meaning once we can't do them anymore: Bauby remembers shaving his aged father, trips to the seaside, childhood activities, activities never undertaken, and enjoys the simple things, like the smell of frying potatos at the seaside.
While occasionally Bauby refers to his anger and frustration, that is not the overwhelming tone of the book. He is thankful for the staff of the hospital (even the unpleasant ones) and grateful to his friends and family who support him. The reader also senses Bauby's amazement at just what the mind and imagination can do, even without the body's support.
The most painful vignette, both for Bauby and the reader, is his description of the day he suffered the stroke - the normal things that we naturally assume that we'll do again and again seem to gain some new emphasis in this retelling of what was a banal yet important day for him.
He finishes the book with a small pean to his transcriber, Claude, and to the small ordinary things of life. He finished the book in August 1996, and tragically died in March 1997, two days after it was published.
So, while this book is indeed one of the most extraordinary ones ever written, for its insights into the mind of someone who has suffered a stroke, I'd have to disagree with the blurb from the Financial Times quoted at the beginning of this review, for as literature I don't think it would rank highly in the books of the 20th century. However, I do recommend this book.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell