Mem­oir of a late-bloom­ing love af­fair

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In 2008, neu­rol­o­gist and au­thor Oliver Sacks wrote Bill Hayes a let­ter of apol­ogy: he had for­got­ten to blurb the San Fran­cisco-based writer’s book about the men be­hind the medical text­book Gray’s Anatomy. Sacks, 75, and Hayes, 49, be­gan a cor­re­spon­dence.

At lunch a month later in New York, Sacks proved to be — in Hayes’s words — “bril­liant, sweet, mod­est, hand­some and prone to sud­den, ebul­lient out­bursts of boy­ish en­thu­si­asm”. The two men spoke about the nov­el­is­tic qual­i­ties of 19th-cen­tury medical lit­er­a­ture.

Back home, Hayes sent Sacks a photo he had taken of the bare tree limbs in Cen­tral Park; he thought they looked like vas­cu­lar cap­il­lar­ies, Sacks thought they looked like neu­rons. Hayes was “sort of smit­ten”. Al­though he moved to New York a year later with­out thoughts of a re­la­tion­ship, they started spend­ing time to­gether.

The joy was mu­tual. Sacks tells us in On the Move, the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy he pub­lished just be­fore his death, that he started to keep a note­book on “fall­ing in love”. In some ways, this re­la­tion­ship was a mi­nor mir­a­cle. Deeply clos­eted Sacks had had never come out as gay and never been in a re­la­tion­ship; he hadn’t had a sex­ual en­counter for 35 years. Hayes, the au­thor of three books, each ded­i­cated to Steven, his part­ner of 10 years, was still in mourn­ing, hav­ing lost him to a heart at­tack at the age of 44.

The men would find a ten­der do­mes­tic equi­lib­rium in sep­a­rate apart­ments in the same build­ing. Hayes would be­come an in­creas­ingly pub­lic fix­ture in Sacks’s life, and be by his side when he died of sec­ondary melanoma in 2015.

This won­der­ful story of un­likely love and Sacks’s late flow­er­ing over these eight New York years are the sub­ject of In­som­niac City. Early in the re­la­tion­ship, Hayes re­counts, his part­ner en­cour­aged him to start a di­ary. And it’s through these small dated vi­gnettes that we see a fluffier, hap­pier Sacks in small mo­ments of do­mes­tic in­ti­macy: drink­ing wine and get­ting high on the roof, in bed, swim­ming, and walk­ing through the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den.

Sacks had been a much-loved pub­lic fig­ure since the pub­li­ca­tion of Awak­en­ings in 1973, and es­pe­cially af­ter The Man Who Mis­took his Wife for a Hat in 1985, which re­newed the case his­tory as a lit­er­ary form, ex­plor­ing the philo­soph­i­cal and phys­i­cal mys­ter­ies of the in­jured brain while main­tain­ing a deeply hu­mane re­spect for its sub­jects.

His de­ci­sion to come out in On the Move sur­prised many who had come to see the grey­bearded and be­spec­ta­cled au­thor as a whim­si­cal, avun­cu­lar pres­ence. The cover photo of young Sacks, a hand­some bear in his bi­cy­cle leathers, re­vealed a “sur­pris­ingly cool dude”, as one re­viewer put it. Bulked from com­pet­i­tive weightlift­ing, Sacks filled his week­ends with speed and drugs; but the man whose mother had de­scribed his sex­u­al­ity as an “abom­i­na­tion” had shut down that side of him­self.

And so, in such a rich ac­count­ing of a life, Sacks’s de­scrip­tion of his re­la­tion­ship — “the great and un­ex­pected gift in my old age, af­ter a life­time of keep­ing a dis­tance” — was nec­es­sar­ily con­fined to the last pages. In In­som­niac City, Hayes fills in the de­tails, not only of Sacks’s happy grap­pling with an un­fa­mil­iar do­mes­tic­ity, but also his heroic fi­nal burst of es­says.

Hayes’s frag­men­tary vi­gnettes are filled with Sack’s en­dear­ing ec­cen­tric­ity and won­der at his late life change. He mea­sures the tem­per­a­ture of his bath with an old-fash­ioned bath ther­mome­ter, frets about po­ten­tial tox­i­c­ity from in-

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.