The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, trans. by Jeremy Leggatt

Jean-Dominique Bauby was in his early 40s and enjoying a career as editor in chief at French Elle magazine when he suffered a stroke and woke up, post-coma, with “locked-in syndrome”: he can only move one eye, and jiggle his head around a little. He writes this memoir – short at 132 pages, but still, extraordinary – by blinking his left eye at a friend who runs through the alphabet with him for every character in this book. That, alone, is astonishing.

But it’s also quite a good book. Chapters are short, episodic; language is often lovely, and not just descriptive. Where I expect someone in Bauby’s position to be bitter and melancholic, he is often nearly joyful, waxing about how he can go anywhere, taste anything in his mind.

My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.

In his imagination, he interacts playfully with the Empress Eugénie (his hospital’s patroness, who died in 1920); travels to New York, Hong Kong, Saint Petersburg; eats apricot pie, Alsatian sausage, or “a simple soft-boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter.” (He is fed through a stomach tube.) He is also often very blue, as in the chapter ‘Sunday’ about how excruciating that day can be when he has no visitors and his hospital carers are indifferent to their job. But we don’t blame him, do we.

Bauby has both a sense of humor and a sense of the sublime. He tells us that in using the alphabet process wherein a guest runs through letters (not in ABC order, but in order of their frequency of use in French), some are inclined to wait for him to conclude each word himself: “unwilling to chance the smallest error, they will never take it upon themselves to provide the ‘room’ that follows ‘mush.'” Others jump to conclusions, in a hurry for the next word. “Yet I understood the poetry of such mind games one day when, attempting to ask for my glasses (lunettes), I was asked what I wanted to do with the moon (lune).” Lovely. Or: before the stroke, Bauby had been contemplating writing a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo (fine book, that); now he finds it ironic that he is living the life of the character Grandpapa Noirtier, who also had locked-in syndrome. “As a punishment, I would have preferred to be transformed into M. Danglars, Franz d’Epinay, the Abbé Faria, or, at the very least, to copy out one thousand times: ‘I must not tamper with masterpieces.'” This is a narrator I like very much.

Lest that go too far, he’s not perfect, either. His relationship with his children and their mother, now that his world has so changed, is complicated by the fact that he had recently left them for another woman when he had his stroke.

This is a memoir with a heartbreaking human story at its core. Nothing much happens during the course of these pages – what has happened has already happened when it begins, although we do get a brief flashback version of the stroke itself, just at the end. (I suspect this question of sequence and not-happening will be Cynthia’s focus, in her upcoming seminar.) But the thoughts and feelings of this locked-in man are worthy of our attention, told as they are with careful focus, humor and humility, and a concern for language. Recommended.


Rating: 7 lucky days.

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