The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: The Memoir


This is one book that should be read after watching the film.  Without visualizing what Jean-Dominique Bauby had gone through after his massive stroke, the reader simply could not empathize or appreciate enough of Bauby’s effort in ‘writing’ his memoir.

But in case you missed the theatre screening and are still waiting for the DVD to come out, you may like to read my review of the film by clicking here.

At age 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor-in-chief of France’s Elle magazine, was paralyzed after a massive stroke.  The only ability left in his whole body was the blinking of his left eye. With the help of his speech therapist, he learned to communicate with the outside world by blinking to the corresponding French alphabets held in front of him.

When the physical body fails us, what elements remain that can qualify us as a human being? Our beating heart?  Our brainwave?  Bauby’s memoir has so poignantly shown us the two essential functions that kept his soul alive:  memory and imagination.  Locked-in syndrome may have encased his physical body, the butterfly within escapes to the expanse of limitless skies.

The 140-page memoir expertly translated by Jeremy Leggatt comprises of 29 personal essays, ‘written’ one blink at a time, and published shortly before his death in 1997. What is trapped inside a totally debilitated body was a vivid memory and lively imagination, that despite being confined to a hospital bed, can set free a soul that yearns for love and intimacy, a soul that still basks in the humor and pleasures of life.

No words can speak more powerfully than Bauby’s own.  Here are some excerpts from his book.

Shortly before his stroke, he visited his 92 year-old father and helped him shave:

I complete my barber’s duties by splashing my father with his favorite aftershave lotion.  Then we say goodbye…We have not seen each other since.  I cannot quit my seaside confinement.  And he can no longer descend the magnificent staircase of his apartment building on his ninety-two-year-old legs.   We are both locked-in cases, each in his own way: myself in my carcass, my father in his fourth-floor apartment.  Now I am the one they shave every morning…

One would never know how potent memories and the imagination can be:

Once I was a master at recycling leftovers.  Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories.  If it’s a restaurant, no need to book.  If I do the cooking, it is always a success.  The bourguignon is tender, the boeuf en gelée translucent, the apricot pie possesses just the requisite tartness.  Depending on my mood I treat myself to a dozen snails, a plate of Alsatian sausage with sauerkraut, and a bottle of late-vintage golden Gewurztraminer, or else I savour a simple soft-boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter.  What a banquet!

Or how poignant the little gestures of love and intimacy are:

While I have become something of a zombie father, Theophile and Celest are very much flesh and blood, energetic and noisy.  I will never tire of seeing them walk along side me, just walking, their confident expressions masking the unease weighing on their small shoulders.  As he walks, Theophile dabs with a Kleenex at the thread of saliva escaping my closed lips.  his movements are tentative, at once tender and fearful, as if he were dealing with an animal of unpredictable reactions.  As soon as we slow down, Celeste cradles my head in her bare arms, covers my forehead with noisy kisses and says over and over, “You’re my dad, you’re my dad,” as if in incantation.

As I finished the book, I could not help but ask myself:  Do I have enough ingredients to practice ‘the art of simmering memories’ if I ever needed to?

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples