It is hard to believe that something so utterly horrific could result in something as beautiful as this small memoir. Once an editor of the style magazine Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby was in the prime of his life when a devastating stroke put him in a twenty-day coma, from which he “recovered” to find himself trapped within his own body, having no more control over it than to blink one eyelid. With only this (and the painstaking attention of Claude Mendibil, a freelance editor to whom the book is jointly dedicated) at his disposal, Bauby endeavored to communicate his thoughts and feelings with an eloquence now physically denied him; these are the butterflies within his diving bell.
Prior to his crippling attack, Bauby was by all accounts a man of wit, charm and creativity and there is nothing in his book to dispute it. Each chapter is as slight as the pages they are printed on but they convey a solidity of experience, conjuring up memories sometimes painful but always cherished, the base traumas his life has been reduced to, dreams, nightmares and the small pleasures he can still find in the world “outside”. He finds humour and irony in his situation, and even manages to forgive the people who must take care of him when they could be enjoying their own lives of a Sunday.
Of course, it’s tragic. Terrifying even, in the mundanities he describes in the lead up to his downfall, the total lack of warning before his effective life was stolen from him. It’s inspiring too, how he is able to come to terms with his plight, maintain relationships with friends and family and, of course, manage to write the memoir at all. Conceiving each chapter, memorising word for word what he wanted to say, then dictating by necessity in the most laborious manner over a period of months; one need not even read the thing to be impressed beyond measure. The text produced, as translated by Jeremy Leggatt, is simple but vivid, funny and moving and insightful and hard to talk about clinically.
Bauby died of pneumonia two days after his book was published. It’s an incredible sadness that someone would have to endure so much to be able to provide everyone else with so moving a story.