Classics Review | The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Sometimes, a book doesn’t have to be thick and full of complexities to mean something to you. Sometimes, a book can be as simple as just an explanation of what you do each day to be compelling. Sometimes, a book is as heart-breaking in its brevity as it is in its content.

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly is one of those books.

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Jean-Dominique Bauby was a prominent magazine editor in Paris, most notably Elle magazine where he worked until he couldn’t work anymore. One day, his body just gave up. He had a major neurological ‘accident’ that left him in a coma for twenty days. When he woke up he was completely paralysed, from the face down. His only movement was the blinking of his left eye.

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly is the painful account of his time in the hospital at Berck-sur-Mer that cared for him after he woke from his coma and his memories of his life before.

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I was recommended this book for a project I’m working on. As an exercise in explaining how one feels when trapped within the body, I approached it with an analytical eye, ready to extract the information required and then move on. There was also a part of me that understood how difficult a read it might be.

It was only halfway through reading that I fully realised what an extraordinary book it is. Due to Bauby’s inability to speak, he developed an alphabet system that allowed him to spell words through blinking (one blink for ‘yes’ to an appointed letter, two blinks for ‘no’). Therefore, in order to write the book, Claude, the publishing assistant who worked with him, had to use this alphabet to get Bauby’s tales and dictate them. The idea that the pair could only communicate in this slow, meticulous way is astounding. It took months; it had to. The volume is just over a hundred pages long.

Yet there is no sense of stilting, difficult communication in the prose. It’s written with simple elegance and clarity. Everything flows in a way that fully encapsulates Bauby’s experience and life. Even with the short chapters that jump from moment to moment, there is a steady rhythm that guides you gently and honestly.

I didn’t expect to be as drawn into it as I was. I found myself being hooked on single sentences, or paragraphs, that are written beautifully. I could feel his everyday pain, the stabs of humiliation, the feelings of guilt and rage. I felt so very sorry for him in one moment and then relished in his defiance the next. I suppose the word is palpable. Every word made his struggle real. But there must be no pity; he wouldn’t have wanted that.

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My review is brief for a brief book, and it is purely because I’m still trying to digest everything I’ve read. In spite of my few thoughts here, I would highly recommend it for its beauty and its grace and its pain and understanding.

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