Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Jean-Dominique Bauby- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Jean-Dominique Bauby
1997

“I am fading away. Slowly but surely. Like the sailor who watches his home shore gradually disappear, I watch my past recede. My old life still burns within me, but more and more of it is reduced to the ashes of memory.”

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a book I picked up on a whim, mostly because it looked like an interesting and very quick read with the promise of some modern day French existentialism. I've long been trying to break down serious works of philosophy, with very limited success, and adding to my frustrations in the past were books including Albert Camus' The Plague and Jean-Paul Satre's Nausea- two books and authors known as the masters of existentialism, but whose work seemed too alien for me, though perhaps I would've fared better with the help of a tutor or some basic research rather than just diving-in head first as I did.

In the past I have  enjoyed the existentialist novels of Milan Kundera, (specifically the classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being), as well as the various elements that pop up in other literature from time to time, partially because the comparatively recent releases combine with a more approachable and humane narration, but more likely because my interests in the genre are amateurish at best and I need all the help I can get. Jean-Dominique Bauby's autobiographical modern world classic seemed to fit in to the (made up by me) category of light existential philosophy with everything going for it to begin with.

I want to see more of that jacket.
At only 140 pages (with larger than usual margins in my edition), as an autobiography it's very short, but this is really the tale of the author's second life, a tragic, poignant and at some points even uplifting one. Jean-Domique Bauby was a successful journalist and editor in his native France until one fateful day in '95 where he suffered a huge stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, trapping him as an almost completely immobile prisoner in his own body. From then on until the end of his life Bauby could only communicate through blinking his left eyelid, doing so at the right moment to select the right letter as an assistant read through the alphabet. Through this painstaking method he composed this book, itself primarily about his life inside the hospital since his stroke.

The main thing that struck me about this book was the quality of Bauby's prose, which is really, really good, maybe as a result of having so much free thinking time to arrange his thoughts as well as possible. The books short length was likely because of the difficulty of the writing process, but this adds to the quality too, since obviously Bauby isn't able to experience many new things while trapped in his state and to be honest I think I would've lost interest if this had been a longer treatise on the same subject- the fleeting nature of his thoughts and observations add to the ethereal ambiance overall.

I'm hesitant to praise this to the extent that I've read other reviewers do, since I think they're reaching for sympathy brownie points, but I do recommend it to anyone interested in the premise as an interesting curio that should lodge itself in the back of your mind alongside thoughts of mortality and imprisonment. It's very well written, not as depressingly sad as it could have been, and a genuine one of a kind situation encapsulating a life that we probably couldn't otherwise imagine.