Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This short memoir was blinked out letter by letter by its author, the former editor in chief of French Elle, who could move only his left eyelid after suffering a massive stroke. The context of its writing is impossible to ignore--of course, his condition is also the subject of the memoir, but knowing how it was written shades how you read it--making it good evidence for how readers bring their own emotions to the table. You forgive the memoir its shortness, its gaps, its lack of total honesty (the movie version, a more artsy endeavor yet seemingly a little more true, makes the author less sympathetic and more suffering) because its creation seems so impossible.

On the one hand, if you are immobile in bed with a fully functioning brain, what else could you do but tell yourself stories, on the other, how badly must you want to communicate if you blink out every word letter by letter. But what's amazing is how crafted the sentences, paragraphs and sections are. These are no noun-verb straightforward constructions; they are rhythmic and long. And Bauby, who died shortly after the book's publication in France, would memorize each paragraph before dictating it.

But back to my point--as readers, we are often intended to place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist or memoirist, but how often do we really do it? It's pretty easy to read from a semi-indifferent remove, but Bauby makes his extraordinary situation so real via detail (looking in the mirror, he writes: "Reflected in the glass I saw the head of a man who seemed to have emerged from a vat of formaldehyde. His mouth was twisted, his nose damaged, his hair tousled, his gaze full of fear. One eye was sewn shut, the other goggled like the doomed eye of Cain. For a moment I stared at that dilated pupil before I realized it was mine.") and so interesting via reflection/metaphor/imagination, (the paragraph continues: "Whereupon a strange euphoria came over me. Not only was I exiled, paralyzed, mute, half deaf, deprived of all pleasures, and reduced to the existence of a jellyfish, but I was also horrible to behold.") that you actually want to imagine yourself there--and then gratefully return to your own reality. It would have been just as easy, I suppose, for Bauby to blink out a novel instead of a memoir, but it's telling that instead of choosing to spend his time escaping his own reality he decided to confront it head on, and write the inside story that nobody else has been able to tell before. It strikes me as just the kind of thing nonfiction can do best.


Bradley said...

I've nominated your blog for a blog award, which you can read about over at my blog, if you're interested.

Oliver de la Paz said...

For that book, it'd be impossible not to take into consideration the way that it was written. Anyway, Meredith is going to use the film for her French class. I thought Schnabel did a magnificent job with it.

Susan Allspaw Pomeroy said...

After reading this blog entry, I got the movie, and was pretty moved. The book is next.