The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — Review by Chris

I never would have considered reading this book had I not seen the exquisite movie. I had never heard of Jean-Dominique Bauby before. I never read Elle, I didn't follow the life of fellow journalists — particularly my international jet-setting French counterparts; call it jealousy if you'd like, but I didn't really care.

Until now.

The story is horrifying yet intriguing: a 44-year-old man has what once was called a "massive stroke," but nowadays is given the moniker "cerebrovascular accident." Nowadays we can save people from death, but it's their lives that are the challenge.

Jean-Do, as his friends call him, survived this brain trauma and awoke from his weeks-long trauma with "locked-in syndrome." His brain functioned and he was fully aware and alert, but he was completely paralyzed. His right eye was sewn shut to protect the cornea. The only part of his body he could move was his left eye.

This intelligent man was trapped in a paralyzed body — until his ingenious speech therapist found a way to connect with his mind. Using an alphabet arrangement based on frequency of use in the French language, she recited the letters until he blinked on the letter. In this way he made "conversation" of entire words and sentences.

For most people, this would be a fete unto itself. For Bauby, it's the beginning. He has a contract with a publishing company to re-write The Count of Monte Cristo from a woman's perspective, but trades that idea for the writing of his memoir.

Okay, people, see if this boggles your mind as much as it does mine: he wrote his memoir one letter at a time. He memorized his passages the night before, polished them in his head before the publisher's assistant appeared every morning for dictation, reciting letters and staring into his eye.

Bauby admitted this was not as easy as it sounds. Some people recited the letters too quickly or didn't look at him. Such a mistake made the difference between "moon" (lune) and "eyeglasses" (lunette). For others, a string of letters were gobbledygook. Some people wouldn't even venture into his room and see his inert body, twisted mouth and single, keenly gazing eye.

The book is a lovely, touching story with the present and past mixed in a gorgeous palette. It's a thin volume, and for that I am grateful. I do not think I could bear more of his experiences than he shared in a two-month period. (He died within days of the French publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a fact that makes the story to me even more poignant and touching.)

I watched the movie before I read the book (though I consumed both within a 24-hour period) and I enjoyed the mix of movie images and the printed word, only if the terrain of Bauby's mind was foreign territory I wanted help navigating.

I recommend both the movie and the book, both strong and poignant in their own rights — and, I think, can each stand on their own strengths. Let me know if you've experienced both, in what order, and what you thought.

1 comment:

Carole said...

This reminds me of The Ha-Ha by Dave King. Although a work of fiction, the main character is extremely challenged in his ability to communicate. I found it heart-wrenching reading but I couldn't put it down.