Douglas White
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A life in motion: the many passions of Oliver Sacks

Sacks has written of showing “extreme immoderation” in his passions. His new book, On the Move: a Life, reveals them.

There is a photograph in Oliver Sacks’s new memoir of the author wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Welcome squid overlords”, a ­giant squid hovering like an alien behind the lettering. When I interviewed him at his New York office in 2001 (his first memoir, Uncle Tungsten, had just been published), he seemed a little diffident despite my keen regard for him – until I mentioned a friend of mine, Richard Ellis, a marine artist and authority on cephalopods, a subject in which I knew Sacks was interested. At that point he lit up. He knew Ellis’s work well and admired it. He pressed into my palm a plastic model of a giant squid and we were off.

This moving book confirms that it is Sacks’s expansive passions for learning and for experience that have made his such a vigorous, fascinating and influential life. “I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests – volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever – then I am instantly drawn into animated conversation,” he writes. Volcanoes! Jellyfish! Gravitational waves! No need even to mention the medical field in which he has made his name, neurology, for that is what underpins all the rest.

Sacks was born in London in 1933, the youngest of four sons. Both of his parents were doctors; his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England. He recalls here how, at the age of 27, travelling through Canada (this is a book spanning thousands of miles of travel), he repudiated the notion that medicine was “his chosen profession”. “Others chose it for me,” he writes, noting the bitterness he felt at the time. And so he had to find his own way into medical practice. On the Move, more than any of his other books, shows the trajectory of that journey, what it cost him and what he gained.

This is by no means a “greatest hits” book, though it touches on all of the works that made his name in the world outside the medical fraternity: Awakenings, A Leg to Stand On, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices and Hallucinations, to name a few. Those were books that helped transform narrative non-fiction and revealed lives and personalities that most of us could never have imagined otherwise. Sacks’s work has always combined empathy with observation. “Neurologists, perhaps more than any other specialists, see tragic cases – people with incurable, relentless diseases which can cause great suffering. There has to be, along with fellow feeling and sympathy and compassion, a sort of detachment so that one is not drawn into a too-close identification with patients,” he writes here. That is a pithy reflection on his life’s work.

On the Move is written with energy but with the consciousness of mortality. Sacks is 81. For years now, he has struggled with poor health and in February he revealed, in a frank and moving piece for the New York Times, that he has terminal cancer. In that article, he reflected that he was not a man of mild temperament but rather one “of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions”.

This book gives a vivid sense of many of those passions. One of the most striking is the author’s youthful love of motorcycles. He left England for the US in 1960 and worked for a time in California before finally settling in New York five years later. Leaving the UCLA clinic on a Friday night, he would get on his bike “and ride through the night, lying flat on the tank; the bike had only 30 horsepower, but if I lay flat I could get it to a little over 100 miles per hour, and crouched like this, I would hold the bike flat out for hour after hour”. He would get as far as the Grand Canyon – a thousand miles in a weekend – and show up for work bright and early on Monday morning. The photo­graphs of him in his leathers are something of a revelation, too. As someone has remarked on Twitter, the young Sacks was a stone cold fox – that’s the plain truth.

It almost reads as if the speed of the bike allowed Sacks to leave himself behind. He also sought oblivion in drugs and weightlifting (he once held the California record for a full squat: 600 pounds) and swimming. He doesn’t speculate here on the reasons why he might have wanted to disappear but when just before he went up to Oxford his mother learned that he was gay (from his father; Sacks had asked him not to tell her but he had), she showed “a face of thunder” and said to her beloved youngest child, “You are an abomination,” and added, “I wish you had never been born.” He never stopped loving his parents and his relationship with his mother was repaired but such an encounter can only exact a heavy price.

In medicine, too, he was the odd one out. He fought against many of the conventions of his profession. He spent time in Guam among people afflicted by a syndrome similar to the sleeping sickness that had affected the patients in Awakenings, the difference being that in Guam the sufferers were fully integrated into the community. “This drove home to me how barbaric our own medicine and our own customs are in the ‘civilised’ world, where we put ill or demented people away and try to forget them.”

There is little that Sacks forgets. This book is a delight and a fine prompt to return to his earlier work. When he was 12, a schoolmaster noted: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” It’s our good fortune that he nearly did, flat out on the ride of his life, yet returned home to his notebook and pen.

On the Move: a Life by Oliver Sacks is published by Picador, 399pp, £20

Editor's note: on 30 August 2015, it was announced that Oliver Sacks had died at his home in New York. He was 82.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder