I picked up this beautifully crafted little hardback without knowing anything about the author or the story. The title caught my attention. Thought I: what could be more interesting that a memoir about invisibility? It was definitely enticing…
The literary world has been groaning under the weight of ‘misery memoirs’ ever since the 1995 memoir A Child Called “It” by American Dave Pelzer & Frank McCourt’s hugely successful Angela’s Ashes, published soon thereafter. Fortunately, Invisible: A Memoir is not just another misery memoir. But it does tread along familiar lines. It commences with the shocking attack on the author whilst he was living in New York in 1978, in which he was blinded overnight, and the affect it had on his life. In this sense it echoes – and owes much to – another Frenchman’s memoir: Jean-Dominique Bauby’s wonderful The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, narrated with the use of his left eyelid after Bauby suffered a stroke which left him with a condition known as ‘locked-in syndrome’. Both men their lives radically altered overnight by something out of their control. In the case of De Montalembert this was through a horrific attack which saw paint thinner thrown into his eyes probably for the sake of a measly few dollars so that someone could make their next score. Such were the times in New York, particularly in the 1970’s. Fortunately, both lived to tell their tales of survival and renewal. Both stories have been made into movies or documentaries; De Montalembert’s story is captured in the documentary entitled Black Sun.
A short book of 125 well-spaced pages, the story and language alternates between spartan and poetic. Frugal, fact-based elements tell us what is happening to him physically, whilst the more lyrical sections deal with what is happening in his psyche. This duality works okay because of the stark differences between the physical and the mind, but I naturally kept comparing it to Bauby’s similar and for some reason more powerful duality – the diving bell of his physical body versus the butterfly of his mind.
After the attack, De Montalembert, a painter and film-maker – and thus reliant on his sight for his work – has very vivid visions, often erotic, which he equates to the animal instinct trying to cling to life, trying to reboot the system in a sense. This is an incredible insight into human nature as it confronts its own mortality – for De Montalembert found himself in a void, caught between death and life, and needing rebirth. Interesting also is the differing reactions of men and women – he gains a lot of strength from women, yet from men he finds embarrassment and awkwardness. His lost eyesight means lost friendships too. People drift away from him, but he is stoic, opting for busying himself with his recovery rather than dwelling on his loss.
De Montalembert’s strength is immense. He refuses to listen to doctors and carers who tell him to expect a nervous breakdown. But there is despair – it’s never far away, despite his speed of adaptation; he has his eyes ablated and tells of listening to late night talk-back radio – one night the topic is meeting people – where both men and women say their best asset is … their eyes – “solitude is broken through the eyes.” It seems that someone in his position is destined for loneliness. But not De Montalembert. His aim is to quickly become independent; he travels alone to Indonesia, India and Nepal where there would always be someone to help him.
After a time, De Montalembert ironically finds his brain making clear images of the world around him because his brain was so “visually trained”. He finds that “it was not so difficult for me to adapt to the situation of not seeing.” He even begins painting and making documentaries again. De Montalembert spends the later portion of this slim volume meditating on the gift of life and what it means to have vision. Tellingly, he feels as though most of those blessed with sight do not really see the world. They see in order to not bump into things, but they don’t really see life. He sees far more than these hollow souls. He also reflects on how he can’t dwell in hate, for to do so, to think of revenge, is to allow his attackers to ‘kill’ his life. There is no looking back. Indeed, his sense of time radically shifts – there is no time. “There is no future. The future is now.”
Drawing conclusions, De Montalembert states: “There was a rupture in my physical condition, yes, but not in my destiny. It is my destiny.” The proof? Ten years after his attack he created a ballet that “was danced at the Grand Opera of Warsaw.” He believes that “strangely enough … blindness didn’t change my life that much.” Some might feel that his story – or transformation – is diminished because of this conclusion, but I do not. I admire it all the more because of De Montalembert’s steadfast refusal to fall into the abyss that beckoned one dark night, because he has not allowed blindness to rob him of his life and of his destiny. It may not reach the heights of Bauby’s Butterfly, but I loved its spirit, its jewel-like packaging, and its message that courage triumphs over any obstacle placed before it.
Invisible: A Memoir by Hughes De Montalembert
Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.