Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death
Jean-Dominique Bauby

First line: Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner. 

Quick summary: 
Jean-Dominique was the editor of French Elle. Then, when he was 43, he had a massive stroke that left him unable to move anything other than a few muscles in his face but with his mind intact, a condition known as Locked In Syndrome. Over the course of several months, by blinking just his left eyelid, he wrote this book. The book offers readers a rare glimpse into a mind that still works in a body that doesn't, a helpless bystander to his medical care, and a man who had lived fully who is now barely living. 

My thoughts:
Wow. This is really a slim volume. It took me a while to read, but I think that's more of a reflection of the fact that it begs not to be rushed. If you rush, you miss it. So much of the book is quiet moments, moments in which his mind takes flight in memory or imagination. 
I think one of the things that impressed me most, other than the sheer tediousness of his mode of communication and that he was able to communicate the book to someone, was how little time he spent dwelling on his condition. It is more lyrical flights of fancy. A painting that transports him to another place. A memory. He did not want to die. He wanted to heal and live.
I can't wait to watch the movie. I'm curious how they did it. 
It's interesting because I don't know that I would have liked Jean-Dominique Bauby had I met him pre-stroke, but I bet he was a great storyteller, the kind of person people gathered around at social gatherings, and he probably knew all the best restaurants and shops.

Rating: Relish

If you like this, you might also like 84, Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

Some quotes: 

"Want to play hangman?" asks Theophile, and I ache to tell him that I have enough on my plate playing quadriplegic. But my communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it, letter by letter. So the rule is to avoid impulsive sallies. It deprives conversation of its sparkle, all those gems you bat back and forth like a ball--and I count this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of my condition. (p.70-1)

Does the cosmos contain keys for opening my diving bell? A subway line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking. (p.131-2)


  1. I remember when this one came out but I was a book snob back then and ignored it. The idea of being locked into one's mind is the ultimate horror. I love the idea of getting a glimpse into that situation and the chance to get to know someone who has found a way to work within his limitations. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention!

  2. Beautiful cover and I like what you say about it.

  3. I've heard the movie is excellent. Glad to hear the book is as well.