Wednesday 5 March 2008

Blinking, Bells and Butterflies

Doing well on yesterday's challenge, people - keep up the good work!

I read another Oxford Book Group book today - in fact, had to request it to a reading r
oom and read it all in my tea breaks. Luckily it was quite short. That's what happens when the entire book is dictated by the winking of an eyelid.

I don't know how familiar people are with Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly? A film is coming out soon, so perhaps that has helped it leap to the public eye. It is basically the selective autobiography of an editor-in-chief of Elle magazine who has a major stroke and is left with locked-in syndrome. As he points out, the first (and he suggests, only) character in literature to have this condition is Noirtier in Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. He can no longer move any of his body, except his left eyelid, but retains total cognitive ability. The French term for it, "maladie de l'emmuré vivant",
literally means walled-in alive disease.

How does one make a book out of this? Well, if it weren't true, it could only be used as a tasteless or lazy gimmick in the background of another narrative - as it is, Bauby writes an honest but witty account, heart-rending but not chest-beatingly gloom. Alongside day-to-day occurences, like the visit of his two children, Bauby intersperses nostalgic recollections, ironies, witty musings and a very human frustration and spirit. He is able to see the humour in a desperate situation - one of my favourite bits, which had to be translated for the version I read, was when he asked for his g
lasses, only to be stopped early and asked why he wanted the moon (lunettes; lune). And in some ways (forgive me if I stretch a point) that is what The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly performs - the mundane alongside the extraordinary; the glasses alongside the moon. Though a slim volume, Bauby has created a beautiful elegy to living and a pathos-filled account of life as an observer rather than participant. You will finish this autobiography recognising the fragility of existence, but laughing at the pomposity of any such idea in the face of Bauby's humour and stubborn refusal to let even the most extreme situation crush him.


  1. I absolutely loved The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

    Elegiac is a good word for it. It is a must-read, I think.

    And I'm looking forward to seeing the film.

  2. You'll be glad to know I bought this a couple of weeks ago - and have already read the introduction!

  3. Wonderful book! Do see the film - it is very well done. The filmmaker was able to fill in the background of it all- with family and friends and hospital staff.

    We saw the film in a very small theatre - and with 2-3 exceptions, everyone sat still through the entire run of credits - even the 8 or so teenagers down on the front row. (We always do the credits.)

    The book was given to me by an email friend - he's a 26-year survivor of a stroke and had another small one a year and a half ago. I've promised to buy the DVD for his birthday next month.


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