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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,9671442,395 (3.95)149
In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two young childen, 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.… (more)
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English (133)  Catalan (2)  Italian (2)  Portuguese (2)  German (1)  French (1)  Dutch (1)  Spanish (1)  Portuguese (Brazil) (1)  All languages (144)
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Suppose a book, written in near-impossible circumstances and universally praised ever since, disappointed you, left you unsatisfied? Would that tell you much about the book itself, or more about you its reader?
. First the facts. In 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of the magazine Elle, suffered a massive stroke which even a decade earlier would have killed him. Not now though - today medical science can keep you alive...after a fashion. His brain-stem irreparably damaged, the result was locked-in syndrome: gradually emerging from a deep coma weeks later, Bauby found himself in a hospital bed, conscious but trapped inside his own inert body. It is a condition which evokes the same horror as Edgar Allan Poe's Premature Burial - waking to find yourself buried alive - and explains this book's title: the paralysed body as a diving bell, a mere rigid container, and trapped within it, fluttering against its windows, the zigzagging butterfly of his mind.
. In fact, locked-in syndrome varies in its severity; Bauby was able to blink his left eyelid and, with time, learned to move his head. And it was with this single eyelid that, after six months in this condition, he began to dictate his book to Claude Mendibil, a freelance editor - composing and memorising paragraphs of text every morning, then spelling them out one letter of the alphabet at a time. Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon is an account, in twenty-nine short chapters, of the hospital at Berck-sur-mer and his own helpless condition there, memories of his former life, fantasies and even an occasional joke. It's beautifully written, very moving - and all the while, of course, you are reminding yourself of just how it was written; rarely can a book have been drafted in such extremis. And yet...I still came away disappointed.
. I guess different readers will see different things in it. A purely practical mind will wonder about the technology, and whether keeping people alive in such circumstances really is a medical advance or not. Bauby was lucky in one respect at least: able to blink, the outside world realised immediately that he was fully conscious; yet you can't help but picture others, less fortunate, no less conscious but fully "locked-in" and assumed to be insentient, who lie alone and (in Bauby's own appalling phrase) "...abandoned to a vegetable existence..."
. A humanitarian might be spurred into action, into helping these abandoned ones (Bauby himself, in the last year of his life, set up the Association du Locked-In Syndrome from his own hospital bed).
. A moralist, on the other hand, might try to connect Bauby's former life - his love of rich food, wine, good living - with his subsequent "punishment" (unable even to swallow, he is fed sludge through a tube).
. A philosopher might go deeper and see Bauby's predicament as a metaphor: for the hugely restricted lives we are all forced to lead as members of society.
. And there will be some who, while impressed by the prose and sheer courage of its author, still put the book down disappointed. Is that our fault as readers, were we expecting too much, expecting a glimpse of a living hell - only to find that it wasn't? Or were we looking for something a lot more profound which the book couldn't live up to? Moreover, should we feel guilty about having such thoughts (could I have written, well, anything at all in those circumstances?)
. So we are left wondering what prompts us to take a book like this (or books about prison camps, disasters, madness) down from the bookshop shelf in the first place. Pure curiosity, to see what locked-in syndrome looks like from the inside? But if it's only curiosity, why would the book disappoint you? Voyeurism then, a modern version of the carnival freak-show? Or is it inspiration, watching as someone battles almost unimaginable odds? And thus it is, finally, a book which leads you to question your own motives and very character. ( )
  justlurking | Jul 4, 2021 |
Review originally posted at Dangerously Cold Tea

This book is truly a miracle. The man, trapped in his own body, managed to write this using his left eye only - well, his eye and someone patient enough to transcribe the story, which took several months to do. The fact that Bauby did not fall into a dark depression and lose the will to live is by itself a powerful testament to his will.

As for the book itself, the prose is lyrical at moments, the mood differing between the dream-like state that exists in his mind and something set heavily in the maudlin reality, complete with macabre turns of phrases on his condition. You can't blame Bauby for being depressed at times, but this is not a depressing novel overall. It is a testament to living despite all odds, powerful and lifting, and his story is a lesson for all of us who take life for granted.

There is a movie version of this starring Mathieu Almaric that looks very well-made. I hope it did the source material justice. ( )
  sarahlh | Mar 6, 2021 |
I expected something more transcendent. It was fine -- lyrical and pleasantly reflective -- but it didn't give me chills, and I sort of expected chills based on how it was described to me. I guess it's not the author's fault I'm a heartless asshole. ( )
  dllh | Jan 6, 2021 |
This is an amazing book. ( )
  baruthcook | Aug 26, 2020 |
Bauby has "locked in" syndrome. This book was written using his left eye to blink out the coded alphabet to his assistant who transcribed it for him. It's a meditative book and reminded me of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey. ( )
  trinker | Jan 9, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (24 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jean-Dominique Baubyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Aumüller, AliTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dedication
For my children, Théophile and Céleste . . .

And my deepest gratitude to Claude Mendibil,
whose all-important contribution to these
pages will become clear as my story unfolds.
Pour Théophile et Céleste en leur souhaitant beaucoup de papillons.

Toute ma gratitude va à Claude Mendibil dont on comprendra en lisant ces pages le rôle primordial qu'elle a joué dans leur écriture.
First words
Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day.
Derrière le rideau de toile mitée une clarté laiteuse annonce l'approche du petit matin.
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Information from the French Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
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Wikipedia in English (2)

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two young childen, 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.

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Coma. Een briljante geest raakt gevangen in een totaal verlamd lichaam. Alleen al het denken aan een dergelijke situatie is benauwend. Leven in een onbeweeglijk duikerpak, zonder hoop op herstel...
Het overkomt Jean-Dominique Bauby, succesvol journalist en hoofdredacteur van het blad E//e. Op 8 december 1995, 43 jaar oud, raakt hij na een beroerte in een diep coma.
Eind januari 1996 komt hij weer bij bewustzijn. Al zijn motorische functies zijn gestoord; hij kan niet meer bewegen, eten, spreken en zelfs ademhalen is zonder hulp niet mogelijk. De medische wereld heeft er een uitdrukking voor: het 'locked-tn syndrom' ofwel 'opgesloten in jezelf. ,~
Bauby heeft nog 'geluk1: hij is in staat zijn linkerooglid te bewegen. En zijn gedachten zijn glashelder...
Met behulp van dat ooglid en een speciaal alfabet weet Bauby zijn gedachten (vlinders noemt hij ze zelf) te dicteren, letter voor letter. Woorden rijgen zich aaneen tot zinnen, tot hoofdstukken en uiteindelijk tot een boek. Een verbluffend boek, benauwend maar ook optimistisch, humoristisch en spiritueel.
Voor Jean-Dominique Bauby was elk woord kostbaar. Zijn verhaal is als een schatkist, maar het is ook zijn testament. Hij stierf een paar dagen na het verschijnen van zijn boek, in maart 1997, met de wetenschap dat toonaangevende critici Le scaphandre et Ie papilion als een meesterwerk beschouwden.
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