Jean-Dominique Bauby’s lasting legacy could not have been predicted while he was alive. As the erstwhile French editor of ELLE magazine, he was known while he was alive as a raconteur and sophisticate. However, in death, his name has become synonymous with great strength in the face of the monstrous stroke that occurred while he was at the wheel of his car. The stroke caused in Bauby a phenomena known as ‘locked-in syndrome’, which is so incredibly rare that it was basically unknown to the world at large before the publication of this beautiful, poetic memoir.
Bauby’s sparse and meaningful reflections on the nature of existence and love, while always maintaining a grim sense of humour at the impossible situation he found himself in while writing the book, make for heartbreaking reading. Themes that run throughout are love, loss and even the tiring process of writing the novel itself – meticulously composed by Bauby before the typist arrived, he then conveyed his words to her through a series of blinks. A word could take two minutes to type in this manner but, as Bauby himself points out, it’s an activity that keeps his creative mind functioning. The worst possible thing he could have done would have been to just give up and slowly rot in his bed, even though it seems at times like he secretly wishes this were so.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is that through everything, Bauby remains amusing and engaging company. As a narrator he is fluid and entertaining, and enlightens the reader with his unique and often hilarious take on his own grim situation. The book never turns into sentimentality or sensationalist drivel, and he never comes across as anything less than a charming, self-effacing man. The temptation to slip into mawkish whining must have been immense but, fortunately for the reader, Bauby seems above that.
One scene that stands out in particular, in the book and in the film, is the trip to the beach that Bauby takes with his family on Father’s Day. It’s a bittersweet account of making do with a situation that nobody could really come to terms with, which Bauby likewise never really does. He accepts his situation, but this memoir isn’t an Oprah Winfrey-style tale of one man overcoming enormous odds – it’s the story of a man who, after leading a life of immense comfort, is forced to accept a massive tragedy on an unimaginable scale, as well as the reactions of friends and doctors to it. There’s no redemption or hope, just a reflection on how things were and how things will henceforth need to be. Like the film, it is a masterpiece.
Bauby died of pneumonia three days after the publication of this memoir, which went on to become a European best-seller.