On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and writer, whose many books have done perhaps more than any other body of work to explain the mysteries of the brain to a general readership, is a strong supporter of the “narrativity” theory of the human subject. Suitably enough – given this is an autobiography – Sacks restates the notion here: “Each of us … constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and is defined by this narrative.” Elsewhere he asserts: “I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.” Setting to one side the truth or otherwise of this contention (personally I think it’s only the social being that is narrated – to ourselves we are always “such stuff as dreams are made on”), for a man who views his life in dramatic terms, On the Move presents the reader with some quite startling narrative leaps. Perhaps the most extreme of these are two seemingly throwaway remarks Sacks makes concerning his sexual life: aged 21, and desperate to lose his virginity, he found himself in the tolerant atmosphere of Amsterdam – yet, trammelled by his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and the social repression of the era, he was unable to act, and instead sat in a bar all evening drinking “Dutch gin for Dutch courage”. He remembered nothing between staggering out of the bar and awaking the next morning in a strange bed, being served coffee by a man who explained: “He had seen me lying dead drunk in the gutter … had taken me home … and buggered me.” A demon even at that age when it came to details, Sacks asked “Was it nice?” to which his ravager replied “Yes … Very nice”, before rounding off the bizarre episode by commiserating: “He was sorry I was too out of it to enjoy it as well.”

The second remark is even stranger: swimming in Hampstead ponds on his 40th birthday, Sacks was approached by a handsome young student from Harvard. A delightful week-long interlude followed: “ … the days full, the nights intimate, a happy, festive, loving week”. It was a great benison – all the greater, because: “It was just as well that I had no foreknowledge of the future, for after that sweet birthday fling I was to have no sex for the next 35 years.”

Accustomed to the current obsession with “identity” (and sex for that matter), we might expect the autobiography of a gay man – especially one from a Jewish immigrant background who ends up emigrating to the US from Britain – to be preoccupied by differences of sexuality and heritage. But Sacks is a man of his generation, and while no prude, nor a jealous guard of his own privacy, nonetheless the personal and existential aspects of this autobiography are definitely secondary to the main business of his life, which has been the practice of neurology and the chronicling of the insights this practice has afforded. In part the light touch on these matters can be explained by a desire not to repeat himself: Sacks’s memoir of his boyhood, Uncle Tungsten, brilliantly realised a portrait of his eccentric family of medics, scientists and technologists, while also recording the traumas of his wartime evacuation and the burgeoning of his own vocation.

Read the rest of Will Self’s review of On the Move at the Guardian here.