I’ve never posted a book review, the mention of an odd art or education related book perhaps, but I’ve never felt the need to…. despite being a fairly avid reader. Until this week that is. I have been reading Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book The Diving-bell and the Butterfly. It is a collection of observations and anecdotes made whilst paralyzed with Locked-in Syndrome. Trapped inside a completely static 44-year-old body Bauby dictated his text using a system of blinking his left eye to indicate which letter his assistant should note down.
The sudden and completely unexpected brain injury the writer suffered that left him bed-ridden is both shocking and confrontational to read about in someone so young. But as you read on you are drawn into Jean-Dominique’s world, his past, his family and friends as well as the interactions with his carers. This should, you would think, be a challenging and heavy read, and yet it is anything but that.
Bauby displays an ability to see so far beyond his hospital bed plight. It seems an almost superhuman achievement to explore and reflect on his life and his future when all his faculties to communicate have been closed down by his injury. He discusses the simplest things, such as not being able to run his fingers through his son’s hair, to amusing stories from his past as an editor in chief of the French edition of Elle magazine. He takes the reader away on memories of holidays past, dictating them to us the reader just as he has explored them for himself time and again confined in his prison-like body.
Throughout there is little evidence of a voice that is expressing regret, rage, or frustration, although all of those emotions must surely have been experienced. No, what comes out of this short one-hundred page book is a writer who seems to want to share, to maybe open our eyes a little more and to still feel part of a world that is in so many ways cut off from him.
Whilst reading it isn’t long before you started to see the connections with the world as we are experiencing it now. We are all feeling restricted, like the world as it was, is passing us by. Times are indeed difficult and challenging. But Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book does throw it into a different perspective and one that does bring a feeling of wonder for one man’s inner spirit and inner world.
“Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed. My imagination and my memory“
Footnote: Although I have only just read Bauby’s book The Diving-bell and the Butterfly I did also see the film made by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel several years ago. The structure of the film is rather different to the book, but it too is excellent and visually fantastically strong.