Wednesday 18 July 2018

Books: Stoic account of a life haunted by the difficulties of belonging

Biography: On the Move, Oliver Sacks, Picador, pbk, 256 pages, €19.99

Easy rider: Oliver Sacks in 1961
Easy rider: Oliver Sacks in 1961

Jane Shilling

On the cover of Oliver Sacks' autobiography is a photograph of a leather-jacketed hunk astride a motorbike. It bears a perplexing resemblance to a still of Marlon Brando from The Wild One. But to those of us who don't suffer from Sacks' own malady of prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, a closer look reveals something familiar about the expression of the eyes: a characteristic, slightly haunted mixture of the kindly, the diffident and the searching.

Latterly we have been accustomed to seeing those eyes gazing upon the world (monocularly, since Sacks lost the sight in one eye nine years ago to ocular melanoma) above a magnificent set of whiskers. But summon the mind's barber and - could it be? Yes, it is! Back in 1961, Dr Oliver Sacks, neurologist, physician, feted author, beloved chronicler of the strange narratives of neurological disorder, was a leather-clad hunk on a BMW R60 bike.

Readers of Sacks' books have gleaned a good deal of knowledge about his life. He is diffident but not self-effacing, a combination that has attracted occasional sharp criticism. In accounts drawn from his clinical observation of patients (Migraine, Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), Sacks stands at an angle to the narrative, as a chronicler of the extraordinary personal dramas enacted by his patients. But in interviews he has acknowledged that even his more formal essays in autobiography (A Leg to Stand On, Uncle Tungsten) contain "hesitancies" about aspects of his life.

On The Move partly addresses these "hesitancies" - though in characteristically fractal Sacksian style, every question resolved makes room for an intriguing flock of new conundrums.

Still, this is as close as we are likely to come to a classical autobiography, arranged in roughly chronological order and exhilaratingly punctuated with meditations on the life scientific, artistic, mechanical, pharmaceutical and erotic.

Oliver Wolf Sacks was born on July 9, 1933, the youngest of four sons of two physicians, Samuel Sacks, a beloved north London GP, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of the first female surgeons in England. Oliver was his mother's darling and her horror when, aged 18, he admitted he was homosexual. "You are an abomination," she said. "I wish you had never been born." Sacks is loving and forgiving about this moment, which passed, eventually. But, he writes, "her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality".

He is both forthcoming and not about his family. There are extended, affectionate passages about his father. In middle age, he made the "joyous discovery" of his brother Marcus, 10 years his senior, who had gone to Australia in 1950. With this "quiet, scholarly, thoughtful and warm" elder sibling, Oliver formed a relationship that had proved impossible with his other brothers, David, "so unlike me - dapper, charming, social", and Michael, "lost in the depths of schizophrenia".

About Michael, he writes at length, sadly and with a degree of self-reproach. About David, he offers a single anecdote. Deciding that "a good woman, even a good f***, could set me to rights", David and his wife escorted the teenage Oliver to an assignation with a kindly, middle-aged Parisian whore who, clocking the situation at a glance, said: "Don't worry, we'll have a nice cup of tea instead."

On the Move is a painful, comic and stoically unself-pitying account of a life haunted by difficulties with "the three Bs: bonding, belonging and believing". In retrospect, it appears as a life throughout which innumerable moments of apparent disaster - failed research, bungled love affairs, sackings from jobs, manuscripts lost or destroyed, injury and, latterly, mortal illness - have proved to be part of a lengthy and intensely humane creative process.

While he chronicles his successes in literature with relish, the essence of this book is the journey, not the glittering progression of achievements. What a long, strange trip it's been: from the epic weightlifting exploits and wild ingestion of drugs in his youth to the painstaking observation and imaginative scope that has characterised his intellectual life as a scientist and writer - and the unexpected accident of finding love with a fellow writer in his 70s, after 35 years of celibacy.

In February, Sacks announced that his cancer had metastasised and he had only a short time to live. "This does not mean I am finished with life," he wrote. "On the contrary… I feel intensely alive."

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