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After the lavish praise... a disappointment
on 18 January 2010
I picked this book up as an afterthought, an addition to an order I was placing. I hadn't seen the film, but I knew it had had rave reviews, and the book equally so.
And having read it, I have to confess I'm really pretty surprised by the number of positive reviews and the level of gushing that this book has inspired. Setting aside the remarkable achievement of writing a book while in this condition, the book itself was quite lightweight and empty.
I won't bore you too much with the story. Essentially it involves Bauby, who was the editor of Elle magazine when he fell victim to coma and total paralysis, and who could only communicate by blinking an eye, and the book he chose to write while in hospital.
It's a very short book - some 130 pages - and for much of it Bauby muses. Except he doesn't really muse, he mostly recounts things that have happened to him in the past, or little events in his daily life in the hospital. Occasionally he will tell us about dreams he's had. And attached to each of these episodes there is sometimes a thread that relates to his current predicament, although often they come down to variations on the theme of: "I used to be able to do that/go there/feel that, now I cant".
To get to the point, I really expected more. Bauby is clearly an intelligent, articulate, man. And he has an easy-to-read style - although I found it overwritten, "purple prose" in places. But from the reviews, and from the simple fact that here is a man trapped in himself for a year, I would have hoped to come away from reading the book with more insight. A better understanding of the man himself, perhaps, or of life itself! Especially from the number of reviews that stated things like "Fall back in love with life!"
But there are no great revelations. In fact there are precious few revelations at all. And few moments that inspired a great deal of thought. Most of the things Bauby remarks upon reveal little that hasn't been dug over by countless, and better , writers before. And frustratingly, there is little sense that Bauby has dug deep into himself and discovered anything new. Or if he has, he is pulling his punches and chooses not to reveal them. What little we do understand about Bauby comes, if you will, as a side effect of what he is telling us. He talks around himself, and is surprisingly coy about getting to the heart of who he is.
Most of the book is quite self-indulgent. Dream sequences, and anecdotes about the past in which very little happens and from which Bauby does not seem to draw a great deal of insight. For instance, he goes to Lourdes and dumps a girlfriend, refusing to tell us how he feels/felt about his, but happy to tell us that she wrote over a book he was reading how much she loves him; another anecdote about when he was a hotshot young editor where he goes to the racetrack and forgets to bet his colleagues money on a horse that then goes on to win; an anecdote about an imagined trip to Hong Kong whose purpose seems only to be to tell us that there is an upscale designer restaurant in which Bauby's photograph is used as part of the design... there are just too many times where Bauby seems to be writing simply whatever comes into his head, because he can (and who can blame him!) but which simply contain little of any substance.
I'm afraid at the end of it I failed to draw any great lessons, and what's more, felt that if life held any great lessons I'm not sure that Bauby would be best placed to discover them. The sad thing about his book is that what I learned about Bauby had more to do with what he didn't say than what he did, and from what he chose to focus on against what he chose to ignore. He struck me as a self-important and vain man (which I suppose you probably have to be to become editor of Elle magazine) who, while nevertheless being trapped in a miserable condition, seems to lack any empathy or emotional engagement with the people in his life. And while not an unemotional person, or one without the ability to turn the odd beautiful phrase, he struck me as having made few strides in the understanding of himself let alone the human condition.
The book feels like the words of someone who believes he Has Something To Say, and from his professional life is used to being listened to. From the writing of the book itself to the "Samizdat" dispatches he fires off to his many friends and colleagues at regular intervals, here is a man whose central problem seems to be that he is "out of the loop" at every level - physical, human and professional, and his words, his need to express himself, are part of his battle against that.
I can't help thinking of a writer like Primo Levi, who suffered a traumatic few years in Auschwitz, and how he wrote about his time there. His total unflinching honesty about himself, his weaknesses, his fear and failures. His refusal to engage in self-indulgent flowery writing, but sticking always to tight economic prose. How much more powerful and revealing was his writing than this. Bauby could have used some of that tautness here, and a lot more honesty. There's something too self-conscious about his writing.
A great disappointment then. But a brief one at least.