Bibliofemme Bookclub An Irish Bookclub

January 10, 2012

The Diving-bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Filed under: Bookclub Books,Biography — The DJ @ 3:07 pm
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Book Cover The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Jean-Dominique Bauby
Biography & Autobiography

Meeting: Sunday 19th September 2004

Earlier this year on holidays, I was sharing a room with a friend who was reading The Diving-bell and the Butterfly. This proximity and much lolling around gave me an insight into how a book can literally make you think out loud. Maybe if I hadn’t been there, she would not have articulated – involuntarily anyway – how it made her feel; but she would stop sporadically and gasp out loud at parts of this story. As a result, I felt that the effect of it rubbing off on me before I’d even read a word. It’s an autobiography by French journalist Jean Dominique Bauby, who, after suffering a severe stroke is completely paralysed – except for his left eyelid. Through a quick reshuffle of the alphabet and a patient translator, this book was ‘written’. The title refers to Bauby’s horrific paralysis, which weighted him down, but left his mind free to float off like a butterfly.

It’s a short book, for obvious reasons, and is divided into 29 episodes. Bauby had to memorise each chapter for the benefit of his translator and yet this stilted approach doesn’t mar his writing. His internal journey in the book is moving and powerfully told. Unintentionally, his writing is philosophical and very poetic. In a passage where he talks about coveting letters from his friends, he says: “I hoard all these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.” It seems the worst possible way to bring on an epiphany, but there’s a sense that Bauby is finally realising what is important and his troubled relationship with his young children is only touched on.

What could also have been a dirge of self-pity is filled with hope. There is even a ripple of humour running through it. When an unfriendly doctor comes to see him and asks if he sees double, Bauby thinks to himself: “Yes, I see two assholes, not one”. Some of his most astute observations are about the everyday and it’s here he confronts the power of memory. An entire chapter devoted to the joy of eating sausages would make anyone hungry and for Bauby food is a sensuous luxury of the mind when you’re fed through a tube in your stomach.

The book is not without its sadness. His children come to see him and his son wipes away his drool; his infirm father is as bed-bound as he is and can’t visit. He tells us that he “can weep discreetly. People think my eye is watering.” But time and again, the optimism and the perspective we should all have on what constitutes a getting a raw deal in life, breaks through.

I can’t help but feel that the people who will get most from this book are creative people or people who have faced huge obstacles or life-threatening situations. I was seriously ill not so long ago and I related to the ennui and routine of hospital and the isolation it brings. It’s also unfair to judge the book in terms of the huge physical effort that went into it. Calling it an ‘achievement’ is patronising and doesn’t do justice to the beautiful words Bauby is capable of. His positivism jumps off the page, but so do expressions and images that linger and make you think.

It is an exquisitely crafted book for practical reasons, but it’s still cohesive. The only thing I minded about the brevity was that I could have gone on reading his words for hundreds of pages. Time and disability wouldn’t allow unfortunately but there are many moments I will always remember and it’s a book I’ll dip into whenever I feel low.  The DJ 4/5

To discuss this book, go here

Score awarded by Bibliofemme: 2.9 out of 5

What the other femmes had to say
The Writer “Valuable as a rare insight and undoubtedly an incredible achievement, the writing is occasionally beautiful but for me it’s a book that somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts.” 3/5

The Techie “Disappointingly disjointed.” 2/5

The Historian “The story and the achievement of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – a man with locked-in syndrome dictating it letter by letter using only his left eye-lid – is better than anything that it contains. While it serves as proof that a person can still think and live and love despite being trapped in a shattered body, this collection of snapshots from Bauby’s life has limited literary merit and it doesn’t really work as a book.” 2/5

The Gardener “Unexpectedly poetic and amazingly written, this man shares his thoughts and experiences with courage, grace and power.” 4/5

The Artist “A stop and smell the flowers biography.” 3/5

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