Book Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Bauby)

I was so moved by the film adaptation, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon when I first saw it nearly eight years ago.

Jean-Dominique Bauby authored this book by dictating with blinks from his left eye at a hospital an afternoon drive from Paris at Berck-sur-Mer, France. He is paralyzed by a stroke with something called locked-in syndrome. Formerly the editor of French ELLE magazine, he wakes up one day only to learn that he can not speak or move and then to have his right eye sewn shut.

His account of the profound depression he experiences at the onset of his life shut down is achingly honest. He copes with not being able to reach out and touch or kiss or the veritable gloom he describes like being locked into a diving bell plunged to the depths of a dark water. Miraculously he escapes despair with the power of his mind, and perhaps the tender care of some of the nurses and therapeutic professionals. His imagination flutters about childhood memories, relationship dynamics, the riches he consumed, right to the present. The chapters are episodic; each one wields a story, a perspective, a lesson textured with irony and a call to stand up and taste life.

All told with France in the background.

This has been a great book to pick up just before sleep these past three months which have been a difficult time. Having moved to a new school, I feel like a first year teacher again and I have been finding it difficult to be grateful for the life I am living. Bauby was one of the voices I had urging me forward into the sensual, the bright and colourful, the humorous, the rich life I do indeed have.

I will always juxtapose this true story with another true story that was adapted into a film: The Sea Inside. Here a quadriplegic man fights to be allowed assisted suicide, fights to die despite being enveloped by loving friends and family and being able to see, hear, smell, and taste, let alone being able to speak. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly celebrates life no matter the condition of the living.

The book I read was scavenged at a used book sale and turns out to be a first edition printing of the English translation, a beautiful little hardcover which I will treasure for years to come. Mr. Bauby had style. This printing makes a point not to miss that the aesthetic, so celebrated by the author, should not be left wanting. Ending the book is a page explaining the font usage.

The book was dictated in the summer of 1996. The author succumbed to pneumonia 2 days after his book was published in France in March, 1997.

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