Re­flec­tions on a life lived in vivid colour

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - David Free

On the Move: A Life By Oliver Sacks Pi­cador, 416pp, $34.99 In Fe­bru­ary, Oliver Sacks, the neu­rol­o­gist who prac­tices med­i­cal writ­ing as an art, pub­lished an es­say in The New York Times an­nounc­ing he was ter­mi­nally ill. The can­cer that cost him the sight of his right eye nine years ago has spread to his liver; he can count his re­main­ing time in months. The an­nounce­ment was made with char­ac­ter­is­tic un­der­state­ment (“my luck has run out”). It was char­ac­ter­is­tic, too, in its verve. Skip­ping self-pity, Sacks spoke brac­ingly of the time he had left. Re­solv­ing to live the rest of his life ec­stat­i­cally, he made you re­solve to live yours that way too.

On the Move, a loose and slightly stand-off­ish au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that looks des­tined to be Sacks’s fi­nal work, is the book of a man who has al­ready writ­ten his mas­ter­pieces. Writ­ing about him­self, Sacks never quite at­tains the fo­cus and gusto of

May 9-10, 2015 his clin­i­cal case his­to­ries, which have been col­lected in books such as The Man Who Mis­took His Wife for a Hat and An An­thro­pol­o­gist on Mars. A fa­mously shy man, he is at his most in­ci­sive and forth­com­ing when ex­am­in­ing minds other than his own. This new book of­fers some clues about why that is, but it’s up to the reader to put them to­gether. Sacks isn’t in­ter­ested in treat­ing him­self as a mys­tery.

He was born in Lon­don in 1933. His Or­tho­dox Jewish par­ents were both doc­tors — his mother a sur­geon, his fa­ther a GP. Sacks wrote of his early years in his 2001 child­hood mem­oir Un­cle Tung­sten: Mem­o­ries of a Chem­i­cal Boy­hood. When Oliver was 18, and just about to leave for Ox­ford, his fa­ther gen­tly con­fronted him about his ap­par­ent pref­er­ence for boys over girls. His mother was less sub­tle about it: quot­ing from the Book of Leviti­cus, she called her son an “abom­i­na­tion” and said she wished he’d never been born.

This out­burst was never spo­ken of again, but it left its mark. In Bri­tain in the 1950s, as in Australia, ho­mo­sex­ual acts were against the law. Sacks men­tions the haunt­ing case of Alan Tur­ing, the com­puter ge­nius who helped crack the Enigma code dur­ing the war and was re­warded by be­ing pros­e­cuted for sodomy. Of­fered the choice be­tween pri­son and chem­i­cal cas­tra­tion by hor­mone treat­ment, Tur­ing opted for the lat­ter.

The ter­ri­fied young Sacks, then, was obliged to leave the coun­try to have legal sex. He lost his vir­gin­ity in Am­s­ter­dam at 22, in a less than ideal way. He drank him­self into un­con­scious­ness, woke up in the bed of a strange but friendly man, and was in­formed that he had been “bug­gered” in the in­terim. To put it an­other way, he was raped. Sacks him­self doesn’t put it that way — it isn’t his style to make a big deal of things. Nor does he spend much time won­der­ing, at least aloud, about the ex­tent to which the fear and shame im­posed on his sex­ual salad days over­shad­owed his later life, which has been dogged by a shy­ness that he has else­where called a “dis­ease”.

“It has some­times seemed to me,” he writes, “that I have lived at a cer­tain dis­tance from life.” He re­veals, strik­ingly, that af­ter a “fling” on his 40th birth­day, he went with­out sex for 35 years. If Sacks were one of his own case stud­ies, he’d have spec­u­lated en­er­get­i­cally about the rea­sons for th­ese things. But this isn’t that sort of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. We’re told, at one point, that he has been see­ing the same psy­cho­an­a­lyst for the past 49 years. What they’ve been talk­ing about we’re mainly left to guess.

At 27, Sacks left Bri­tain for Canada and then the US. The move wasn’t meant to be per­ma­nent, but he has lived and worked in the US ever since. His por­trait of the neu­rol­o­gist as a young man, in San Fran­cisco and then in New York, gives us a fig­ure rad­i­cally at odds with his lat­ter-day im­age. The younger Sacks was a rugged long-dis­tance mo­tor­cy­clist, a record-break­ing weightlifter, and a heavy user of LSD and am­phet­a­mines.

He also har­boured an am­bi­tion to write. His first book was Mi­graine, which arose from his work at a headache clinic in the Bronx. “There is only one cardinal rule,” he wrote in the book’s con­clu­sion. “One must al­ways lis­ten to the pa­tient.” That com­mit­ment has been vi­tal to Sacks’s suc­cess as a physi­cian and a writer. When I first read his headache book I was suf­fer­ing from hellish mi­graines my­self and dreamed of en­coun­ter­ing a neu­rol­o­gist as in-

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.