In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two young childen, a 44-year-old man known and loved for his wit, his style, and his impassioned approach to life. By the end of the year he was also the victim of a rare kind of stroke to the brainstem. After 20 days in a coma, Bauby awoke into a body which had all but stopped working: only his left eye functioned, allowing him to see and, by blinking it, to make clear that his mind was unimpaired. Almost miraculously, he was soon able to express himself in the richest detail: dictating a word at a time, blinking to select each letter as the alphabet was recited to him slowly, over and over again. In the same way, he was able eventually to compose this book.
The Diving Bell is the physical state that Bauby refers to himself, a prisoner of Locked In Syndrome. The Butterfly is his mind that flutters about his past and his present, something that he delights in occupying, despite the betrayal of his body. The two states meet in the pages of this extraordinary book. It is a hugely optimistic book, and a remarkable achievement in itself. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was dictated letter by letter with only the blink of an eye. Each blink pointing to a letter, recorded by his assistant. Bauby spent the nights composing, learning and editing his sentences and chapters. This endeavour makes it moving in itself, and is a draw to this reader.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a series of short chapters, each a separate memory or event, and Bauby’s reflections haunt the pages. The book could be read in a matter of hours, however, rather like poetry, I wonder if there is merit in savouring each chapter on its own, like you would a poem. Bauby’s writing is glorious, with several sentences that had me gasping. Sentences like:
“we can linger here until nightfall and watch the sun set and the lighthouse take up the torch, its hope-filled beams sweeping the horizon,”
Several paragraphs had me reeling. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is told with pathos, humour and everything else in between. It is profound and humbling. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a recipe for appreciating the small things, of seizing the moments, and making the most of whatever there is.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a small book, with a huge heart.