I have been trying to read a few French authors recently in order to make conversation with my new housemate Mariane. I idolise Mariane in the same way you might idolise a strict but wonderful teacher at school, or a powerful, beautiful husky dog in a muzzle. She does have a tendancy for bluntness, which I both fear and love, and is formidably intelligent. I chose her because she was the only prospective housemate who went straight to my bookshelves when she viewed the flat, immediately pulled out Emile Zola and started discussing him. Also, unlike everyone else my age, she does not use 'like' as every other word, and the irritatingly indifferent phrase 'whatever' has not once passed her lips.
She can cook pretty well, too. We have a developed a slightly competitive air in the kitchen, especially if we both cook at the same time, which I don't mind because I am secretly in love with her. Being a bit in love with my housemate seems to be a trend with me; not in a creepy, stalker way (not completely) but in a way that lets me enjoy a healthy, unspoken frisson every time we chop vegetables together.
So, I've read a few French classics, not many, and I wanted to read something a little more modern. I chose The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, partly for its length and partly because people kept buying it at the bookshop. I suppose it isn't surprising at all how much customers affect your reading, but my bank balance when I got the job was certainly surprised. I worked out the other day that - combined with secondhand and online purchases - I spend around a quarter of my earnings on books. It would no doubt be a lot more if I hadn't developed a nose for a good bargain (thebookpeople.com, a company usually specialising in wank, were selling ten books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for £9.99, for example).
So started the conversation with Mariane about this book. I was trying to decribe it to her, assuming it was famous in France, but she had no idea what a 'Diving Bell' was (and, I had to admit, neither did I). It didn't help that I was pronouncing the author's name wrong with my clumsy British tongue. Eventually, we came to the understanding that it was Le Scaphandre et le Papillon in French, which directly translates as The Deep-Sea Diver and the Butterfly. Bauby's metaphor, for the trapped mentality of Locked-In Syndrome and the thoughts that take flight in his mind, is much more effective, I think, in the original term. It also changes the meaning: from him as the deep sea diver, to his body as a diving bell. I am certain I am being over-picky about this, but there seems something sacrilegious about changing the title of his memoirs just for a different country's market. But then, publishers do this all the time.
The most unusual thing about this book, and the thing I'd like to avoid mentioning but can't, is that it was written with only the movements of Bauby's left eye to decifer the alphabet. Following a massive stroke, his brain stem was severed and he became paralysed, with only this method of communication left. What I found interesting was that before the development in resuscitation techniques, patients suffering such a severe stroke would simply die. After telling us this in the first pages, there is a distinct echo throughout the book of frustration and bewilderment at his survival. Without a doubt, the doctors made the right and only choice - without which this book wouldn't have been written - but Bauby's longing to live, touch and move again is painful to listen to, and painful to imagine.
It is a book that demands sympathy, but, thankfully, has not been written with gratuitous self-pity. The only reason I ever wavered in this respect was the inklings of his previous life - rather than being a nobody who wrote a remarkable book, he was in fact the very successful chief editor of Elle magazine. Does it make it more sad because he was successful? He also had the chance to write it because he had been commissioned to write another book at the time of the accident. Does that take the spark away? I think my scepticism comes from my connotations of Elle - it reminds me of certain people at school, huddled around the latest fashions while I huddled around Roald Dahl. What is the word for how I am reacting? I have a few, unfavourable ideas.
I can forgive Bauby's popularity in light of his writing. I tried to judge it without the context, which is of course impossible in this case, but there is no escaping the sparse beauty of the prose. There are some wonderfully elegant moments, and the briefness of each chapter creates a poetic feel. If I really like a phrase, sometimes I turn the top corner of the page over; these are some sentences I loved so much I damaged the spine and the page:
"Once I was a master of recyling leftovers. Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories."
And, when describing how his communication of choosing one letter at a time can be misconstrued:
"Yet I understood the poetry of such mind games one day when, attempting to ask for my glasses (lunettes), I was asked what I wanted to do with the moon (lune)."
If you are looking for a similar book in style, structure and originality, I have to urge you (and everyone you know) to read Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. I found this book in America and devoured it one rainy afternoon in a Boston hostel bunk-bed. My travelling companion (the one who now lives in Sweden) had left the holiday a week early, so I was left to my own devices. For three weeks we had travelled from city to city in glorious sunshine, and now I was alone, it rained eternally. I got a lot of reading done, though, and made a big dent in the twenty-something books I bought from City Lights in San Francisco the week before. When I came back to England, I recommended Alan Lightman so heartily I sold three in a week, including the copy I had lovingly written a book review on.
Such is the feeling when that happens that the book review was probably the best review I had ever written, and I will never match that wit, insight and depth again. So I didn't write another, and I stopped recommending it because we had sold out, but I have to revive the suggestion because it is one of the best books I read last year. How to describe it? Well, Lightman attempts to explain Einstein's perception of possible universes by making each one into a short story, or chapter. They are written as dreams that the scientist records into his diary before arriving at his grand theory of relativity. It therefore shows a thought-process, a creative way of explaining scientific theory, a poetry of science.
Don't switch off at the mention of science! This is a truly beautiful book, and deserves your attention. The stories each revolve around a similar setting but with one fundamental change that highlights the alternative universe: it might be a circular universe, where people are forced to relive their mistakes and virtues, or a universe in which the centre of time stands still and parents and lovers float in an unmoving reality. I cannot express the scope of the book, only that each section seems to be a completely original take on his subject. There is no sense of repetition (unless it is the effect Lightman desires), and no sense of weaker chapters. After all, with Einstein as your muse - I believe Lightman used his diary as source material - there is surely no limit to the strength of your ideas.
If the way I have described it is complicated, then I am being misleading. Although I have a thirst for simple scientific knowledge, I won't pretend that I understand Einstein's theory at all. You don't need to. The book stands alone as creative fiction, and is so interesting in itself that someone with no knowledge of science could enjoy the characters and snap-shot stories alone. It is also irresistibly poetic, almost prose-poetic, in places. I whizzed through it in a matter of hours (too fast - savour it longer), and it left me feeling light-headed and thoughtful. Gave me some pretty wild dreams, too. It is a book that evokes a certain mystical feel that lingers with you afterward, just like waking from a vivid dream.
It is an American book, unavailable in the mainstream UK, but I have ordered some more copies for Topping's should anyone be interested. Who knows, I might even write another (shorter) review and plonk it on the paperback table.