Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Nook - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby is an aptly-named, depressing little book.  It doesn't intend to make the reader sad; rather, I think it sets out to just be honest.  But in that honesty, there is a great deal of melancholy.

When the author was 43 years old, he had a life changing experience: he had a massive stroke, which should have killed him, but thanks to modern technology, he survived and now lives in a state of vegetation, except for his mind.  He has what is known as "locked-in-syndrome."  He can hear everything (except his hearing was damaged some by the stroke), can see out of one eye and has all of his mental facilities.  He just cannot move at all, with the exception of blinking one eyelid.  And that is how he wrote this book.  His writing assistant would recite the alphabet, starting with the letters most used in the French language, and the author would blink when she came to the letter he wanted.  So, he had to compose and edit the entire book in his mind and then go through the laborious process to get his words on the page.  That alone is reason enough to read and admire the book.

But there is so much more: Bauby is also an excellent writer, and his chapters are serene and contemplative.  He imagines his 9-year-old daughter's prayers floating up to the sky and protecting him from harm.  He imagines his old friend driving from Paris to the seaside town where he resides, to visit him, and what his friend must be thinking, and dreading, about the visit.  He tells of the sadness of having a one-sided phone conversation with his elderly father, never being able to speak or even grunt any acknowledgements.  He tells of a trip outdoors to the beach, and the wonderful smell of french fries, even though he will never be able to enjoy them again.  He recalls a past road trip with a girlfriend when they were on the cusp of breaking up their relationship, and they just happened to take a detour to Lourdes, France.

As you can see, none of this is really uplifting.  But the beauty of this book is its frankness.  The author writes about his life as it really is, the memories of his past self, both good and bad, and the realities of his current self.  And by the time you get to the end of this little book (132 pages), the reader can't help but be profoundly moved.

There is a nice quote by a Newsday writer about the book that I thought worthwhile to share: "an admirable testament to the unkillable self, to the spirit that insists on itself so vehemently that it ultimately transcends and escapes the prison of the body."  Well said.


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