Jean-Dominique Bauby’s tersely poetic memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, typed from the blinking of an eye, is harrowing and crystalline clear, moments chronicled by a man on the precipice of death:
I am fading away. Slowly but surely. Like the sailor who watches the home shore gradually disappear, I watch my past recede. My old life spurns within me, but more and more of it is reduced to the ashes of memory. I went to Paris and was unmoved by it. The streets were decked out in summer finery, but for me it was still winter, and what I saw through the ambulance window was just a movie background. Filmmakers call the process a “rear-scene projection,” with the hero’s car speeding along a road that unrolls behind him on a studio wall. Hitchcock films owe much of their poetry to the use of this process in its early, unperfected stages. My own crossing of Paris left me indifferent. Yet nothing was missing – housewives in flowered dresses and youths on roller skates, revving buses, messengers cursing on their scooters. The Place de l’Opera, straight out of a Dufy canvas. The treetops foaming like surf against the glass building fronts, wisps of clouds in the sky. Nothing was missing except me. I was elsewhere.
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My aspirations as a writer began in Grade Five, although I must admit that my series on the Secret Spitball Society didn’t impress Mr. Bacon, nor did my extra-terrestrial cat-being proclaiming See the USA in your Chevrolet! Mr. Bacon had us listen to John McIntyre’s clever, metaphoric prose instead, a story set in Niagara Falls, someone going over in a barrel. My words weren’t as adroit as John McIntyre’s, but I did have stories in my head; I just had to learn how to let them come out in a pure kind of form. I continued to write – more superficial stuff, including the closing pages to a confused epic (Vile Illuminations), and some awful poems in high school, and then angsty plays (Alleluia & Bare Cage) and awkward screenplays (Ferges in Newfoundland & Beyond the Sand of Virginia) in university – before starting my first novel in Paris.I had a few moments of my hoped-for purity in The Sacred Whore, characters speaking for themselves, images flowing out, but it was more me just doing my five pages a day, gleaning along the way, until I had arrived at page 718. Something seemed to be working. I shared my progress with Ben, a fellow writer I met at a party in Toronto. He stared back. “I’m re-inventing the novel. It’s time to shed the artifice of the narrative and create something more pure.” Purity? Oh no. Was I as stupid and inane? I resolved to avoid writers from that moment on. I wrote in silence. I would think and read and write alone. That was all. I would send the work out and someone, somewhere would understand. And I did just that, stayed away from other writers, from everyone in the business, and wrote in London, Cordoba, Sardinia, Vancouver and New York. The isolation helped me find my sense and direction. And even if I didn’t re-invent the novel, I found a voice and only need the patience for it to be heard.