During the summer of 1996, Jean-Dominique Bauby diligently dictated what was to become The Diving Bell and the
Butterfly to Claude Mendibil. Bauby touched on a variety of subjects: his aged father, his young children, his dreams, his memories, the struggles of daily life, and much more. Bauby also dealt with emotions ranging from tenderness to bitterness. At the end of the summer, when he and Claude went over the potential manuscript, Bauby, like all authors, thought: “Some pages I am pleased to see again. Others are disappointing. Do they add up to a book?”
They added up to a fascinating book. One reason is that Bauby had enjoyed a varied career in French publishing at the time of writing, he had most recently been editor in chief of the French version of Elle magazine. Another reason is that Bauby had lived a very full life including warm relationships, travel, and the love of good food. Perhaps the final, and key, reason this book captures the reader’s imagination is that it wasn’t written on a state-of-the-art computer with the best software a publishing bigwig could afford Bauby, using only his left eye, blinked out his stories using a special alphabet created by his speech therapist.
Bauby did this because six months before beginning the book, he had suffered a brain stem stroke. After he emerged from a coma, he was found to have locked-in syndrome his mind was active and alive, but his entire body was paralyzed. That is, except for his left eye, which became his sole connection with the world. This was enough to impel Bauby to share his tale with us. He met his goal, but, unfortunately, he died very close to the publication date.
In 29 short chapters he manages to say much and say it well. Bauby started each session by gathering his thoughts before Claude arrived. Upon her arrival, the work began in earnest with Claude reciting an adapted alphabet featuring letters in the order of most common occurrence in the French language. Instead of ABC, Bauby heard E, S, A, R, I, and so on and would blink when the desired letter came up. In this way, words, then sentences, and ultimately paragraphs were built one letter at a time.
While reading, I thought of how many times I grab a piece of paper to jot down an idea before it flees my mind. I also thought of how one can read or write paragraph after paragraph that says little. None of this seemed to be an issue for Bauby, who somehow managed to patiently dictate profound, yet concise, thoughts he’d organized hours before without losing any of their impact. With that kind of concentration and talent, he must have been quite a force in the publishing world.
Bauby used his talents to cope with his dismay at his new physical condition and created memorable writing, from phrases to chapters. He depicts his young daughter’s behavior during a Father’s Day visit in this way: “…Celeste is doing cartwheels on the sand. Perhaps some compensatory mechanism is at work, for ever since the act of blinking became the equivalent of weight lifting for me, she has turned into a genuine acrobat.”
In the ironically entitled “My Lucky Day” (a half-page, single-paragraph chapter), Bauby tells in moving sensory detail how three annoying and degrading medical equipment problems affected him one morning as well as sharing his coping strategy and his eventual rescue by a nurse.
But the conflict he feels as he tries to come to terms with his condition is handled best in two consecutive chapters early in the book. “The Photo” shares how just prior to his stroke, Bauby had helped his elderly father to shave. The fact that Bauby could no longer shave his father or himself hit him hard. This chapter also recalls memorabilia in the elder Bauby’s apartment, including an childhood photo of the author at a miniature golf course. While in the hospital, Bauby’s father sent him the picture with this inscription: “Berck-sur-Mer, April 1963.” The twist: this long-ago vacation spot is now the location of the naval hospital where Bauby was confined.
On the heels of “The Photo” comes “Yet Another Coincidence,” where Bauby confesses he had been flirting with the idea of writing a new version of The Count of Monte Cristo. He describes a character from Dumas’ original, Grandpapa Noirtier, who existed in a physical condition similar to his own. He wonders, only partly in jest, if his fate is due to his plan to reinvent Dumas’ book and says that as a penalty he would have rather had “to copy out one thousand times: ‘I must not tamper with masterpieces.'” Bauby then adds, “But the gods of literature and neurology decided otherwise.”
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not a brand-new publication. Instead, it is a book that I have wanted to read for a few years. For starters, I have always been puzzled by the imagery in its title. Because of my satisfaction with Bauby’s explanation of his title (a motif that runs throughout the book), I won’t divulge it here. You should discover it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.