The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly by Jean-Dominque Bauby (translated by Jeremy Leggatt)
Published:  1998 by Vintage International
Source:  Borrowed from the library

  In my ongoing attempt to learn French, I have started to watch French movies (still with the English subtitles – I’m not that fluent yet!) and one that I enjoyed recently was The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby.  After watching the movie, I felt I needed to seek out the book upon which the movie was based (I’d like to try reading it in French, but for now I read the English translation).

  Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor of Elle magazine in France when at the young age of 43 he suffered a massive stroke.  While his mind was not affected, his body – except for one eyelid – was left completely paralyzed; this condition is colloquially known as “locked-in” syndrome. 

  One of his therapists devised a method of communication where one would read him the letters of the alphabet in the order of their frequence of use and Bauby would blink his eye when the correct letter was reached.  This is how Bauby “wrote” this memoir – memorizing what he wanted to say, then dictating it to the transcriber.

  I use the term memoir to describe this book but I’m not sure if it is correct.  It seems rather to be a collection of vignettes of his “locked-in” life and the language he uses is incredibly vivid:

My dving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly.  There is so much to do.  You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.

You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face.  You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.

And, in describing a visit to the seaside near his hospital with some of his caretakers who find the smell terrible around the shacks on the beach:

But I never tire of the smell of french fries.

The book is not long – about 130 pages – but it is full of inspiration and should make one appreciate their own life a little bit more.


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