The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A composition of poignant essays by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was editor of the French Elle before he suffered a massive stroke at the age of 43.

Bauby’s stroke made him a prisoner in his own body: a victim of locked-in syndrome. Unable to move, talk or even bathe himself, Bauby’s only means of communication was blinking his left eye.

And that’s how he composed this book. In the spaces of isolation that inevitably befell him each day (particularly Sundays–the Sunday chapter was one of my favourites), Bauby meticulously constructed essays in his mind. Then, with the help of an assistant who would run through the French alphabet in order of frequency, he wrote Diving Bell by blinking. One painstaking letter at a time.

I think its conciseness adds to the eloquence of Bauby’s writing. His tales sparkle with wit. Reading this book, I forget that he was bound to an inert, putty-like body. I forget that I would be stunned to behold him, unable to even hold his head up in a chair. His expression gnarled and saggy. In one chapter, Bauby fails to recognise, and is then horrified by, his reflection. The reader shares in his horror and dismay.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was published two days before Bauby’s death in 1996. It became a bestseller and has been turned into a movie (albeit with some twists on the truth).

Some reviewers have remarked that Bauby was not an admirable man–that his reflections reveal him as materialistic, career-orientated, unfatherly. I don’t feel that I can judge a man through his book; I can only judge his writing. And his writing is moving, thought-provoking and imbued with liveliness…all the more astounding given his situation. A struggle and a triumph against overwhelming odds that can only commend my admiration.

5. Read and review at least one book per month (12/32).

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