Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Reviewed by Christina

Published: In French, as Le scaphandre et le papillon, 1997. Translated by Jeremy Leggatt and published in English that same year

It's about: Jean-Dominique Bauby was 43 years old and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when a massive stroke left him comatose. Twenty days later he recovered from the coma with his mental faculties intact and his body almost totally paralyzed. This memoir describes his life with the condition known as Locked-In Syndrome. He dictated it by blinking his left eye.

I thought: Can you imagine composing an entire book in your head and dictating it, chapter by chapter, by blinking? The wikipedia article says that each word took approximately two minutes. It seriously blows my mind, how impossible such a task seems, how laborious the job of stringing together sentences would be at such a pace. And yet M. Bauby did it. What's most amazing is that the final product is not only coherent, but evocative and at times wryly funny. It's also (not surprisingly) very, very sad.

And even though he was living in what many of us would consider the absolute worst case scenario, Jean-Dominique Bauby didn't just surrender to bleakness. He put forth the effort to write a book! Amazing. So if you've got a hankerin' for something inspiring, I highly recommend picking up The Diving Bell and the Butterfly rather than whatever Paulo Coelho has cranked out recently. I, personally, loathe inspirational stuff, and this book is the heartiest dose I can handle.

So. I feel like a jerk doing this, but it's only fair to try to look at the writing objectively and... well, I didn't love it. There are a few too many similes for my taste, and while some of them are quite nice, there are a couple of paragraphs that become an insipid mishmash of mixed metaphors. And there's one sentence in particular that made me groan and roll my eyes: "The identity badge pinned to Sandrine's white tunic says 'Speech Therapist,' but it should read 'Guardian Angel.'" I just cringe every time I read that. The sentiment is meaningful, but the way it's presented isn't. To be fair, my issues with the text might be problems with the translation, not the writing itself. Maybe "Guardian Angel" isn't a reprehensible cliché in French. This is something that frustrates me when I read things in translation. I feel I can comment on the content (inspiring!) but not the style.

Another problem is how much I loved the film adaptation of this book. I mean, I sobbed through the entire thing and then recommended it to everyone within earshot. So it wasn't entirely the book's fault that I was disappointed. It's... the movie's fault? I guess?

Verdict: In between. I kinda liked it, but I didn't love it. And yes, I know that I'm a cold-hearted meanie.

Reading Recommendations: Read it in French? I'd love to know what the writing is like in its original language. I wish I spoke/read well enough to try it.
It's extremely short- my edition (with the movie tie-in cover that I'm not even embarrassed about because I loved the movie SO MUCH) is 132 pages with very wide margins.
There's a short documentary about Jean-Dominique Bauby called Assigné à résidence that apparently shows the method for dictating this book. Here's an excerpt, but it's subtitled in German. I tried to watch it but my dinosaur of a computer curled up and died half way through, so I'm not sure whether it shows the dictation process or not.
Of course, my number one recommendation isn't a reading recommendation at all: watch the movie! It is beautiful.

Warnings: Nothing stands out in my mind.

Favorite excerpts:
"This morning, with first light barely bathing Room 119, evil spirits descended on my world. For half an hour, the alarm on the machine that regulates my feeding tube has been beeping out into the void. I cannot imagine anything so inane or nerve-racking as this piercing beep beep beep pecking away at my brain. As a bonus, my sweat has unglued the tape that keeps my right eyelid closed, and the stuck-together lashes are tickling my pupil unbearably. And to crown it all, the end of my urinary catheter has become detached and I am drenched. Awaiting rescue, I hum an old song by Henri Salvador: 'Don't you fret, baby, it'll be all right.' And here comes the nurse. Automatically, she turns on the TV. A commercial, with a personal computer spelling out the question: 'Were you born lucky?'"
[That passage isn't really exemplary of most of the book. He seems rather cranky here, and justifiably so. But it stuck with me, and reading it again really makes me appreciate my life.]

What I'm reading next: House Arrest by Ellen Meeropol