Monday, 26 August 2013

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby)

--The blurb--
"In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the witty, gregarious editor of French "Elle", suffered a stroke that left him totally paralyzed, able to communicate only by blinking his left eye. By doing so, he was able to compose this book - at once a record of appalling suffering and a testament to the endurance of the human spirit."

--The review--
Occasionally cases of locked-in syndrome and paralysis make the news. In 2005 it was British man Tony Nicklinson, who campaigned tirelessly in the press for the right to die with assistance (he died naturally mere months after losing his case in the High Court). In 2010, Times journalist Melanie Reid fell from her horse, making her an instant tetraplegic. Her position as a writer for one of Britain's most respected broadsheets has enabled her to not only raise awareness of tetraplegia but also to chronicle her day-to-day existence with humour and pathos. In the late 1990s, memoir The Diving Bell and The Butterfly served a similar purpose, drawing the public's attention to locked-in syndrome as experienced by former ELLE editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. Through painstaking blinks of his eyelid, he was able to describe his days in hospital near Berck-sur-Mer thanks to the dedication of Claude Mendibil, who took down Bauby's story letter by letter after he had memorised each pithy chapter in his head.

Bauby certainly takes pithiness to extremes in this tiny volume, which barely attains 140 small pages, with wide margins. However, this is no bad thing, as the concision of his writing enhances its artistry and poignancy. This combination of brevity and beauty makes the book a portable masterclass for anyone wishing to know how to write well. In spite of the devastating position in which Bauby finds himself, his unique view of the world he now inhabits and his voyage through memory is simultaneously accessible and elegant - a feat in itself considering how despairing such a text could be.

Naturally, though, Bauby does acknowledge the most painful aspects of his new existence, including getting used to feeling like he has a diving bell for a head, not being able to communicate even his most basic needs without someone patient enough to sit through his blinking, managing the vast quantities of saliva that his mouth now suddenly produces, and trying to rebuild his relationship with his children. Readers are buoyed, though, by the fact that he is still so lucid and descriptive, and the butterfly of the book's title seems to represent not only the freedom that he still has in his mind, but also the delicately dancing beauty of his prose and the ever-increasing acuity of other senses (such as his hearing - at one point he marvels "I must have the ear of a butterfly!"). This instils us with the belief that in spite of his near-total immobility and lack of physical independence, he still has so much to live for - and, furthermore, gives us hope that he may recover, which is fuelled by small signs of progress in his physical condition.

Thanks to the dense layering of stunning images and very real emotion with which The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is packed, Bauby leaves a stunning literary legacy which is already rightly remembered even more than his successful career as a magazine editor. While this degree of physical limitation is not what anyone would choose for themselves, Bauby's memoir - which neatly flits, like a butterfly, between his past life and his present experiences - is an inspiring reminder of the fortitude of the human mind and spirit, which is indeed a legacy that writers like Melanie Reid can take even further strength from.

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