I saw the movie of this before I read the book, which is an unusual way around for me. I won’t compare them any more than saying that they are both very different, and both are incredibly harrowing.
Jean-Dominique Bauby worked as the editor of the French edition of Elle magazine. Quite an admirable and highly envied position. However, a massive stroke in his mid-forties left him almost completely paralyzed, only able to communicate with those around him by blinking his left eye.
Despite this undeniable obstacle, Bauby managed to write his memoirs through a transcriber, who held up a board of the alphabet, and Bauby would blink when the transcriber landed on the right letter.
And the book just isn’t about Bauby’s struggled with his “locked-in syndrome”. Through a series of essays, Bauby displays he has not lost his ability for whimsy, his sense of humor, nor has he lost his memory. When speaking about losing his motor skills doesn’t mean he has lost his pride: “If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere.”
The book consists exclusively of memorable chapters, but my personal favorites were “Our Very Own Madonna”, where he recounts a trip to Lourdes with a lover, which reminds us that Bauby was once very much a vibrant young man. “Through A Glass, Darkly” is a heartbreaking account of his children and wife visit him in the hospital, where Bauby describes himself as a “zombie father”. I also enjoyed his idea for a play in “Voice Offstage”.
This edition has been translated from French by Jeremy Leggatt, which must have been a very daunting task. But there is only one point where it makes a difference. Bauby is speaking of the frustrations of people trying to finish words he is spelling on the letter board: “…Attempting to ask for my glasses (lunettes), I was asked what I wanted to do with the moon (lune).”
The fact that Bauby was able to have any creative output at all in his paralyzed state, let alone such a beautifully poetic collection, is staggering. By the time I finished, I felt incredibly guilty for being so lazy when it comes to writing, let alone thinking that I have any “real” problems in my life.
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is an inspirational, life-affirming book. It should be consumed and enjoyed in one sitting (it took me a couple of hours), followed by a brief weep, and then an intense desire to use all the energy you have to do something positive.