Book Reviews

Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 131pp.Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 131pp.

           Jean-Dominique Bauby had it made, or so he thought. At age 43 he was the editor of Elle magazine, cynical, and a stranger to failure. Then he had a massive stroke that left him in a coma for three weeks. When he awoke, he suffered from a rare neurological disorder called "locked in syndrome." He could hear a little and his brain worked fine, but he was totally paralyzed and couldn't speak. He could blink with his left eye. With his one good eye Bauby dictated this remarkable memoir, letter by letter, to his amanuensis. A speech therapist devised a chart with the letters of the alphabet arranged by frequency of use. As she spoke the letters Bauby would blink for the letter he wanted. Though locked in the heavy "diving bell" of his useless body, Bauby's imagination soared as playfully as "the butterflies that flutter inside my head."

           Bauby's book consists of what he calls his "bedridden travel notes." He lost sixty-six pounds in twenty weeks. When a fly landed on his nose, he wiggled his nose to no avail, only to conclude that "Olympic wrestling is child's play compared to this." Taking a bath sometimes brought elation and at other times depression. Sundays were the worst, when hospital staff and visitors were at a minimum. Bauby relates some of his dreams, memories like a trip to Lourdes and the last time that he saw his father, and cherished visits from his daughter Celeste, age eight, and son Theophile, age ten. His description of their visit to the beach on Father's Day is wrenching: "Grief surges over me. . . There are no words to express it. My condition is monstrous, iniquitous, revolting, horrible. Suddenly I can take no more. Tears well and my throat emits a hoarse rattle that startles Theophile. Don't be scared, little man. I love you."

           Bauby's public updates, and eventually this book, belied the rumors swirling around Paris that the famous editor was "only a vegetable." Mail poured in to him and he hoarded the letters like little treasures. In 2007 a film by the same title told his story, earning four Academy Award nominations. Bauby died in 1997 just days after the publication of his book.