UD‘s back at the beach.

She got the book and the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as holiday gifts, and last night for hours she did the whole multimedia thing.

First she lay in bed and read the book, the sound of her American Atlantic waves echoing the sound of the author’s French Atlantic as he lay in a hospital bed in 1995 — he died the following year — entirely paralyzed after a stroke. He listened to the water from the balcony of the Naval Hospital on the northern coast; UD listened from an apartment balcony in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

Julian Barnes says there’s a “strange, unwitnessed, yet deeply intimate relationship between writer and reader,” and this intimacy is particularly intense when the writer has been reduced to consciousness alone, and when he is writing quickly and honestly, in the face of death.

Of course Jean-Dominique Bauby didn’t write the book at all; he dictated — oculated? –his final thoughts via blinks from one good eye.

The result of this painstaking process is a thin reflective volume, 132 pages of staccato prose… A bit of regret here, a burst of agony there. Stabbing prose.

Ashamed as nurses bathe him, Bauby recalls “the protracted immersions that were the joy of my previous life. Armed with a cup of tea or a Scotch, a good book or a pile of newspapers, I would soak for hours, maneuvering the taps with my toes.” He imagines summer vacationers “boating around [an] island, the small outboards laboring against the current. Someone will be stretched out in the bow, eyes closed, arm trailing in the cool water.” He’s a universe away from them, among “broken-winged birds, voiceless parrots, ravens of doom, who have made our nest in a dead-end corridor of the neurology department.”

The only unshattered things he has left are consciousness and emotion. “I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours.” On Sundays, everything dies. “I contemplate my books, piled up on the windowsill to constitute a small library: a rather useless one, for today no one will come to read them for me. Seneca, Zola, Chateaubriand, and Valéry Larbaud are right there, three feet away, just out of reach.” Alone, he falls into “regret for a vanished past, and above, all, remorse for lost opportunities. … [T]he women [I was] unable to love, the chances [I] failed to seize, the moments of happiness [I] allowed to drift away. Today it seems to me that my whole life was nothing but a string of … small near misses…”

On the very last page, he suddenly looks at the open purse of his speech therapist:

…I see a hotel room key, a metro ticket, and a hundred-franc note folded in four, like objects brought back by a space probe sent to earth to study how earthlings live, travel, and trade with one another. The sight leaves me pensive and confused. Does the cosmos contain keys for opening up my diving bell? A subway line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back?

And then I watched the film – in that hunched and solitary way you watch when you watch on your laptop, with its little sounds and images shedding their little circle of light… But I felt far less intimate with Bauby than I did reading his prose – even his translated prose. To read his book is to be encased with him in his consciousness; the film’s about too many other things besides his morbid subjectivity. The other things are moving and true — the intensely loving desire of other people to help him, in particular — but you only get the truth head-on, UD thinks, in the grain of the prose, in consciousness unbound contemplating unspeakable boundedness.

And then I got online and read all about the controversy over the film’s distortion of Bauby’s ex-partner and the girlfriend he left her for …

Trackback URL for this post:

One Response to “Snapshots from Rehoboth”

  1. University Diaries » The Martin Amis Essay: Part Three Says:

    […] are in some sense indivisible. In Ada, that bond loosens and frays. [This is crucial, I think. Julian Barnes writes that there’s a “strange, unwitnessed, yet deeply intimate relationship between writer […]

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE