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

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era