Slim but Mighty

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominigue Bauby (1997. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-375-70121-4)

Think you have it bad, Munger? You whine and complain about being a “semi-famous” regional novelist (a phrase coined by second son, Dylan) who never, at least in your own eyes, gets the recognition you feel you deserve. Well, Kid, here’s a book to put things in perspective.

Jean Bauby was the editor-in-chief of Elle’s French edition, meaning he was pretty much at the top of the publishing/editing ladder in terms of periodicals. Forty-three years old, father of two, married, and comfortable in his success, Bauby was stricken by a massive stroke such that he became paralyzed. He was rendered unable to communicate or move beyond swaying his head from side-to-side and using his left eyelid to indicate his needs and desires. This is no children’s bedtime story. There is no miraculous comeback or recovery for Bauby. He lived but a year, imprisoned in his own body in what is termed “locked in syndrome”. But in that year’s time, letter by precious letter, he left us this book as a precious gift to humanity. The sparse writing and breathy chapters leave little room for sentimentality as the author paints pictures that one hopes none of his readers will ever personally experience, but does so with humor and deftness. Here’s an excerpt from his chapter “The Wheelchair”:

As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car. The wheelchair sat abandoned in a corner, with my clothes tossed over its dark-blue plastic back rest. Before the last white coat left the room, I signaled my wish to have the TV turned on, low. On the screen was my father’s favorite quiz show. Since daybreak, an unremitting drizzle had been streaking my windows.

To say that Bauby was courageous in crafting this slender (really not much longer than a novella) memoir is a mistake. The author never claims to be heroic or faithful or blessed as he lives a shortened life largely inside his own head. Instead, Bauby simply tells us what it was like. And that, in the end, makes for a uniquely beautiful elegy.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A very quick, yet touching, read.




About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink.