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A triumphant memoir by the former editor-in-chief of French Elle that reveals an indomitable spirit and celebrates the liberating power of consciousness.
In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two young children, a 44-year-old man known and loved for his wit, his style, and his impassioned approach to life. By the end of the year he was also the victim of a rare kind of stroke to the brainstem.
After 20 days in a coma, Bauby awoke into a body which had all but stopped working: only his left eye functioned, allowing him to see and, by blinking it, to make clear that his mind was unimpaired. Almost miraculously, he was soon able to express himself in the richest detail: dictating a word at a time, blinking to select each letter as the alphabet was recited to him slowly, over and over again. In the same way, he was able eventually to compose this extraordinary book.
By turns wistful, mischievous, angry, and witty, Bauby bears witness to his determination to live as fully in his mind as he had been able to do in his body. He explains the joy, and deep sadness, of seeing his children and of hearing his aged father's voice on the phone. In magical sequences, he imagines traveling to other places and times and of lying next to the woman he loves. Fed only intravenously, he imagines preparing and tasting the full flavor of delectable dishes. Again and again he returns to an "inexhaustible reservoir of sensations," keeping in touch with himself and the life around him.
Jean-Dominique Bauby died two days after the French publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. This book is a lasting testament to his life.
In 1995 Bauby, the 45-year-old editor of French Elle, suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed in all but his left eyelid. Out of this waking nightmare (what the medical community calls "locked-in syndrome") he managed to dictate--letter by letter, in a semaphore of winks--this memoir of his "life in a jar." He died two days after the book's French publication. Bauby's essays are remarkable simply because they exist, and he earns admiration for having endured, with surprising grace and good humor, what is perhaps the worst imaginable fate. This said, the real poignancy of these pieces is their ordinariness. No deathbed philosopher, Bauby avoids the depths of despair and prefers to view his hospital ward with the sardonic cheerfulness and smiling regrets of an homme moyen sensuel as he remembers meals, baths, work, conversations--the pleasures taken from him. There are moments of extraordinary sadness and beauty--when, for instance, Bauby dreams at dawn that he can visit his girlfriend, "slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face" or wishes, during a visit from his nine-year-old son, "to ruffle his bristly hair, clasp his downy neck, hug his small, lithe, warm body tight against me." But Bauby's observations, like his prose, stick to the predictable: the everyday is his sustenance. What is most surprising, in the end, is how little he gave in to the loneliness of his "diving bell," how completely he relied on the butterfly of dreams and memory. That is the triumph of his final words. 100,000 first printing.