This is one of my oldest books. Not the very oldest, but pretty old. I must have bought it around the time the film came out and just never got round to reading it. The choice wasn’t deliberate – it just never leapt out at me, even though I had always been fascinated by the premise and had always intended to read it. I haven’t seen the film yet either.
The last couple of books I’ve read for this blog have been quite short. I’m not sure why – I think it’s been a combination of wanting something fairly light to carry with me while I was commuting and also the pleasure of getting through a quick read and being able to strike it off my list.
Having finished The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I think I have an improved appreciation for the luxury of being able to do, well, anything. A quote from Edmund White on the back of my edition assures me that this book will prompt me to fall back in love with life, or something similar. I’m not sure I would go that far, but in many respects this is a remarkable book.
Jean-Do, as he was called by his friends, suffered a stroke in his early forties, and when he woke up around two weeks later, he was ‘locked-in’ - totally unable to move and yet completely aware of everything around him. He narrated this book, composed in his mind, to an editor through the blinking of his left eye to signal which letter he wanted based on the frequency of its use in the French language. I guess he certainly had the time to be meticulous. I definitely felt very starkly the effort and perhaps agony that must have gone into constructing this book, contrasted with how quickly I read it. At only 140 pages, it only took me a couple of hours. I almost wish I could have savoured it more in honour of the feat of writing it in the first place.
It’s a devastating idea, to become stuck in your own body with no hope of recovery, and obviously Jean-Do feels this acutely. He is continually torn – does he re-live his memories to savour what life was like before his illness, or risk spiralling into despair at remembering what he'll never again be able to experience? Surprisingly these moments are also at times pretty funny, for example when remembering different foods he used to enjoy eating, Jean-Do concludes that he quickly becomes tired of imagining a different feast for himself each day, and is eventually satisfied with a little sausage here and there.
The most interesting areas for me were the parts involving language, and how other people responded to the new barrier between Jean-Do and themselves. Obviously, only being able to blink at a letter at a time makes conversation and correspondence a mammoth task – and one that not everyone in his life was able to successfully adapt to. Jean-Do has no choice, of course, but sadly finds himself cut off from those who cannot cope with this new form of communication. Moments of lightness also appear, such as times when people attempt to pre-empt what Jean-Do is trying to communicate (‘lune’ or ‘lunettes’?).
For this reason too, I’d also like to read the text in the original French one day. I don’t know much about the translation of this text and I have no reason to think that the translator was careless or flippant with the work, (although the title is not quite right – according to the notes at the back, the French title translates to the ‘deep-sea diver’ rather than ‘diving-bell’) but this book in particular strikes me as something with a higher degree of precision than ‘normal’ (not sure what I mean by that) so I’d love to give it a go in the original French.
Jean-Dominique died very shortly after his book was published, which is a shame, but probably also a small mercy. He died from pneumonia, probably as a result of being unable to breathe properly on his own. In all, I think he was ‘locked-in’ for about two years, with very little hope of recovery. I wonder if dying was a relief to him in the end. I know it probably would have been for me.
On that happy note, next, it’s time for Tree of Codes and Street of Crocodiles.