Two years ago I had the pleasure of reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly after seeing the film of the same name. Both are the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a young editor of the fashion magazine Elle who has a stroke and becomes completely paralyzed, except for his left eyelid which he can blink. Bauby (pre-stroke) would be best described as a playboy, one of the most famous and notoriously indulgent men in France. His recount of his fall from grace is both elegant and deeply uplifting; despite the tragedy that has befallen him, Bauby remains remarkably optimistic throughout the novel. In fact the name of the book comes from the feeling that although physically he feels like a man stuck in an archaic deep-sea diving suit – a diving bell – his mind is now more free to float about like a butterfly, unhampered by any barrier that may have once restrained it.
Perhaps the most unbelievable thing about this book is how it was written. Since Bauby could not talk, the entire book was transcribed by an aide of his who would read off all the letters of the French alphabet in order of their frequency in french words, with Bauby painstakingly spelling words letter by letter. Writing a paragraph would take hours, and together Bauby and his assistant wrote a whole book.
Bauby obviously had a beautiful mind and a gift with words as the editor of a major magazine, but he never fully realized his talents until he had his means of expression taken away. When it takes you all day to write a paragraph, you have a lot of time to think about how you want to perfectly shape your sentences.
I would have expected Bauby to angry and sardonic about his terrible fortune, and at some points he is understandably frustrated. Yet throughout most of the book Bauby is inspiringly thankful to be alive. In some lucid dreams, Bauby imagines rising from his bed to dance with a statue of a Goddess that stands outside his door, both miraculously sprung to life despite the shackles of anatomy and physics. Rarely does he ever draw pity from the reader and never does he beg for it. Still, it would be inhuman to turn an apathetic eye to Bauby as he gleefully describes watching his children play and grow up before him on a few of the rare excursions he was allowed to take to the french riviera. Every small event, from his baths to televised soccer matches, feel like small miracles to Bauby. Although Bauby frequently cheated on his wife while he was healthy, she still loves him and goes out of her way to make his life more comfortable after his stroke, and her love may be one of the most beautiful things about the novel.
One of my favorite chapters of this book was Bauby’s recount of a horse race several years before he had his stroke. He, as editor of a small newspaper, took his best friend and coworker to the race track one friday. They had receieved a hot tip about an underdog horse who was a “guaranteed winner” and they had intended to place large bets for themselves and a few coworkers who were still in the office that day. In the swirling smoke and summer heat of the grandstand, time slipped by and Bauby and his friend missed placing their bets by mere seconds, and thus lost out on winning a large sum of money for themselves and their coworkers when the underdog won. Together they watched the horse pull away and thought about how sad their coworkers would be when they returned to the office without the expected prize money. The name of the horse was Mithra-Grandchamp and he came to symbolize lost chances to Bauby. The following quote is from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and I think it beautifully describes “the one that got away” – in whatever sense that might be.
Frankly, I had forgotten Mithra-Grandchamp. The memory of that event has only just come back to me, now doubly painful: regret for a vanished past and, above all, remorse for lost opportunities. Mithra-Grandchamp is the women we were unable to love, the chances we failed to seize, the moments of happiness we allowed to drift away. Today it seems to me that my whole life was nothing but a string of those small near misses: a race whose result we know beforehand but in which we fail to bet on the winner. By the way, we managed to pay back all our colleagues.
Being in LA, i sometimes wonder what i opportunities were lost by moving so far away from friends and family whom i love. It is reassuring to think that although i am somewhat bound by my decision, there are no permanent barriers to freedom such as the ones Bauby suffers. Further, his beautiful literary stylings and unflinching hope in the face of a dark future are very uplifting. So i suggest you read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is a great summer book, it being neither long nor dull nor overly lecturing, and the chapters are short so its easy to read while trying to fall asleep, lest you get stuck mid-chapter with heavy eyelids. It all happened in the 90’s so it doesnt feel outdated. And if reading isnt your thing, the movie is lovely, too.