books: A week in books

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Sickness is a kind of foreign land - a territory with its own rules and rites that most people visit now and then. No one wishes to return (though many will) as an expat on a one-way ticket. And sickroom literature - so grievously enriched by Aids - has more in common with travel writing than case-histories. However bizarre the terrain, reports from the country of the ill can only hold their readers if at least some of the landmarks look familiar.

Hence Jean-Dominique Bauby - former editor-in-chief of Elle in Paris - had more than one mountain to climb when he set out to compose a memoir in the wake of the mighty stroke he suffered, aged 42, in December 1995. The way he did so, while deprived of all speech and movement, has already enthralled the global media. Left by the utter paralysis of "Locked-In Syndrome" with just one mobile eyelid, he used it to signal each letter of each word as helpers read the alphabet to him. "Crossword fans and Scrabble players have a head start" in anticipating nascent words, as visitors reel off letters arranged according to their frequency in French: ESARINTULOMDPCFBVHGJQZYXKW.

This, then, is Bauby's despatch from the island of Esarintulom, a lonely colony of Qwertyuiop, where other writers live. He published it four days before his death on 9 March. This week, Fourth Estate issues Jeremy Leggatt's translation as The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (pounds 9.99). His news comes from an unimaginably distant place: "your chances of being caught in this hellish trap are about as likely as those of winning the lottery". So how can he show us around?

For the most part, he does so by sticking with his old alert, slightly offhand self. This vain and driven personality, you feel, changed not one jot with disability. On the morning of his stroke, the media sultan left "the lithe warm body of a tall dark-haired girl" who was not his wife to spend the day test-driving a BMW. Having coolly consumed the pleasures of health and wealth, and just as coolly watched them vanish, he sets about restoring them in feats of memory. One day, he will sit down to a mental banquet of "a dozen snails, a plate of Alsatian sausage with sauerkraut, and a bottle of late-vintage golden Gewurztraminer"; the next, he will fly to Hong Kong and tramp "neon-bright streets where pocket computers and noodle soup are sold".

As the book records these triumphs of the will, its emotional tone stays muted. "I can weep discreetly", Bauby admits. The tangled drama of his private life - a home abandoned, frantic bids to keep the love of two children, a much younger girlfriend - barely breaks the surface. Jean- Do had no saintly aspirations and, for all his gourmet hedonism, not too much sensitivity. Yet it's just this ruthless bourgeois equipoise that serves him so well as tour-guide to this alien planet. We can share his outlandish isolation precisely because he asks for so little in the way of empathy or absolution. At times, the book reminded me of the icy clarity Simone de Beauvoir brought to her account of Sartre' s descent into blind, incontinent confusion in La Ceremonie des Adieux - a rigour that, in its own stoic way, crowned a lifetime's love.

With Bauby, that stale cliche about the "Cartesian logic" of French thought proves true, as what's at stake is a total split of mind and body. In his prison, Jean-Do really does exist to think. The result is a hugely absorbing narrative, but not one that touches or uplifts quite as much as readers might expect. The state of sickness offers some unique sights to literary trippers. But you really wouldn't want to live there.