Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The first thing I do when starting to write about Jean-Dominique Bauby's magnificent jewel of a book is to look up the French title (which didn't occur to me while reading it): Le scaphandre et le papillon. The translator's English is close enough, it seems, even capturing in its own way the rhythmic assonance of the original. But then, maybe not so much: my old Langenscheidt pocket French dictionary gives scaphandre as "diving suit" rather than diving bell, and scaphandrier as "deep-sea diver". A different image, of enclosure yes but also of a kind of monstrous mannikin, ringed with masks and tanks and tubes, deprived of normal sensation, like Bauby in his hospital bed in Berck-sur-Mer. Possibly more a sense of exploring the depths too, whatever the dangers and restrictions. I'll have to bug one of my native speaker friends for clarification.

Whatever the sense of the title, there's less of the cold, dark depths than you might imagine in this book, and much more of the butterfly, fluttering half deliberately half impulsively from memory to fancy to sharp, funny and moving observances of himself and the people and things around him. I think only a French writer could create a book like this from a condition, a history like this. Flipping through the narrow volume of short, evocatively or evasively titled chapters, it strikes me that that protean French prose genre the essai has itself come to the diver's rescue. Or rather it becomes the vehicle (submarine? helicopter?) by which he rescues himself, even while his efforts give a whole new meaning to the form.

I page though the book to find the exact wording of one image that had stuck in my mind, celebrating the letters Bauby receives in the hospital from friends, family and colleagues: "I hoard these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship." I remembered these being the last words in the chapter, which they were, except for this one line closing paragraph: "It will keep the vultures at bay". Interesting that I'd remembered the hopeful fancy not the black humor. There's an ever present, ever shifting mix of both moods in the communications Bauby crafted, as he describes, so carefully in his head before conveying them the world through a carefully orchestrated system of winks -- no stranger a mechanism when you come right down to it than tapping on laptop keys or incising wedge-shaped marks on wet clay.

1 comment:

Topaza said...

This is great info to know.