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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Two Medical Dramas: From Poetic Ponderings to Plain Pablum

June 20, 1997|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY by Jean-Dominque Bauby Translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt; Alfred A. Knopf $20, 132 pages

*

NOT EXACTLY WHAT I HAD IN MIND by Rosemary Breslin; Villard Books / Random House $23, 229 pages

*

Modern medicine can enable us to escape, if only for a time, afflictions that even 10 years ago would have killed us. These two sharply different books by professional writers tell of their experiences with illness, hospitals and the menace of death.

Bauby's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is much the more vivid. When he was 43, a massive stroke disabled his brain stem. He was editor in chief of the French fashion magazine Elle at the time.

"In the past," he writes, "you simply died.

"But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as 'locked-in syndrome.' Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move."

His body is like a diving bell.

"But my mind takes flight like a butterfly," he writes. "You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas' court.

"You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. . . .

"In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication."

Bauby wrote this book by using his left eyelid. Each day he composed the chapters in his head, editing and memorizing them. An assistant to his publisher would go to the hospital with an alphabet in which the letters were listed according to their frequency in French: E S A R I N T U L O M D P C F B V H G J Q Z Y X K W.

She read this alphabet, and when she came to the letter he wanted, he blinked.

Using this system, he could not only more or less communicate with visitors, but also write--laboriously. The result is spare, crystalline prose, put into elegant English by translator Jeremy Leggatt.

He conveys the look of the sea--"it foams such an incandescent white that it might be the product of the special effects department"--at the edge of which the hospital is set in Breck-sur-Mer, on the Channel between Abbeville and Boulogne. He sketches the doctors and nurses who are compassionate and those who are indifferent. Evidently not a believer, he writes with respect and gratitude of the prayers and charms that friends of diverse creeds have sent to him.

He portrays to great effect the strange dreams, mixtures of actuality and fancy, that come to those on the margins of a comatose state. He writes with both humor and revulsion of being wiped and diapered, of being roughly bathed and crudely shaved.

His love for his young children, Celeste and Theophile, suffuses the book with delicate tenderness.

Toward the end of the book, he writes: "I am fading away. Slowly but surely. Like the sailor who watches the home shore gradually disappear, I watch my past recede."

Bauby died of heart failure two days after the book was published in France earlier this year.

*

In "Not Exactly What I Had in Mind," Rosemary Breslin writes about her six-year experience with a rare and serious anemia that is not fully understood. Like Bauby, she owes her extended life to modern medicine. (Her father, columnist Jimmy Breslin, wrote a book about his own medical emergency, a brain aneurysm.)

She has been married to Tony Dunne, of the writing family of Dunnes--John Gregory and Dominic--for three years.

"I hope it'll be 33 some day, but that seems unlikely," she writes.

Much of her book rings true. The reader's arms ache after her tale of being endlessly and painfully punctured for blood transfusions. She writes believably about her love for Dunne.

But less so about her illness. Her wise-guy New York street talk is not adequate for describing or explaining personal feelings. She is partial to cliches.

Of a difficult medical test: "I was cool and quiet and incredibly freaked out." Or, "This is like some Kafkaesque experience."

She tries to present herself as spoiled and selfish. You wonder whether this picture is accurate or a literary ploy that doesn't do her justice.

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