Featherglass's Reviews > The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
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Aug 07, 12

Read from July 25 to August 02, 2012

Imagine writing a book without the luxury or pleasure of seeing the words, and thus the story unfold, on paper or screen, editing every sentence to make each say exactly what you want it to say, then spelling out each alphabet of every word you've chosen by using your left eyelid to communicate all these words to someone who comes every afternoon to transcribe your thoughts.

This kind of endeavor requires not just discipline to see the entire project tthrough, but also the ned to refine and memorize each sentence, line by line. Every word in this thin volume of 200,000 words, the work of two months of tedious work, has a reason for being there. So when your eyes travel across the page, be aware that each alphabet was communicated to another person by the blink of an eyelid. Treasure each word, as the writer invariably did.

Such is Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir of his life after a massive stroke left him a paraplegic, a Frenchman who was editor of one of France's leading fashion magazines, who loved his work, travel, who had many friends, and who now lived in imposed solitude, imprisoned, whose more painful moments included having to grapple with the notion of what it meant to be a father who can no longer ruffle the hair of his son Theophile, or sing pop tunes with his eight-year-old daughter, Celeste.

"Hunched in my wheelchair, I watch my children surreptitiously as their mother pushes me down the hospital corridor. While I have become something of a zombie father, Theophile and Celeste are very much flesh and blood, energetic and noisy. I will never tire of seeing them walk alongside me, just walking, their confident expressions masking the unease weighing on their small shoulders. As he walks, Theophile dabs with a Kleenex at the thread of saliva escaping my closed lips. His movements are tentative, at once tender and fearful, as if he were dealing with an animal of unpredictable reactions."

The writing is sharp, witty, funny, and one gets the impression Mr Dauby lived life to the fullest until the stroke. There is no sentimentality in his writing, nor does he indulge in self-pity though he has every right to. Instead, this is a memoir brimming with a love for life, and living, though the writer is reduced to being a bystander.

"I receive remarkable letters. They are opened for me, unfoled, and spread out before my eyes in a daily ritual that gives the arrival of the mail the character of a hushed and holy ceremony. I carefully read each letter myself. Some of them are serious in tone, discussing the meaning of life, invoking the supremacy of the soul, the mystery of every existence. And by a curious reversal, the people who focus most closely on these fundamental questions tend to be people I had known only superficially. Their small talk had masked hidden depths. Had I been blind and deaf, or does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person's true nature?"

This book is the result of Mr Dauby's indomitable spirit. He passed away two days after the French publication of his book.

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