Recently I made a trip to Tauranga to spend some time with my grandfather, who was born in 1917. Nearing ninety-nine, nonetheless capable in body and mind, he moved about his apartment making cups of tea, talking about the war and the reality of the approaching end of his life. I returned to Dunedin but the theme continued; waiting quietly in the mailbox were two books, both slim, both hardcover, both dealing with memory and death.
Also born in 1917, Diana Athill has in recent years made an art form of the memoir. In 2009, Athill won the Costa Biography Award for Somewhere Toward the End. This gives you some idea of the quality of her writing and subject matter. Alive, Alive Oh! is her seventh such book, but the reader needn’t worry that she might be running out of material. Ninety-eight years of life gives a writer plenty to render, and Athill’s prose is as sharp as her memory and perception; too, she has lived a remarkable life, as an editor alongside Andre Deutsch and as a woman during a century in a society which tried its best to prescribe a woman’s life.
This memoir describes, with humour, clarity and honesty, Athill’s unconventional relationships, the history behind her childlessness and “lack of wifeliness”, and her abhorrence of “romanticism and possessiveness, which can be dangerous, and in conjunction with sexuality even lethal”. It also focuses on the joy and richness to be found in life, even and especially as the end of one’s own time draws near. The book’s final chapter is a poem, entitled ‘What Is’, and it seems to sum up the tenor and quality of Athill’s perspective on life. It concludes with the lines, “Look! / Why want anything more marvellous / than what is.” Dead right.
A similar vein of lucid, often joyful reflection runs through the four essays written by Oliver Sacks, which together constitute Gratitude. Described by the New York Times as “the poet laureate of medicine,” Sacks is likely to be well-known to readers for his many books detailing the conditions and predicaments of the patients he encountered in his work as a neurologist, such books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings, which was subsequently made into a film.
Like Athill, Sacks had something of an expectation-defying life and career. He came from a Jewish family, but at a young age distanced himself from a religion that would not tolerate his sexual orientation; he experimented prodigiously with hallucinogenic drugs, which he credits with paving the way to insights about the brain and mind that may otherwise have remained obscured from him; and with his capacity for compassionate enquiry, he is said to have captured the medical and human drama of illness more honestly and eloquently than perhaps any other writer.
Oliver Sacks died in August 2015 at the age of eighty-two. During the last few months of his life, he wrote this set of essays in which he explored his feelings about completing a life and about coming to terms with his own death. In his short essays (one could read them all over a pot of English Breakfast) he approaches these themes with a combination of directness and allusion. He writes of the elements of the periodic table, samples of which he had among his possessions, adding to them as his years advanced – gold for 79, mercury for 80, thallium for 81, and as a souvenir of his 82nd and final birthday, lead. By aligning his life and thoughts with these elements, which he describes as “emblems of eternity,” Sacks manages to reconcile himself. And in his final essay, ‘Sabbath,’ completed and published a few weeks before his death, Sacks returns to the paradigm of his boyhood, and while doing so finds the parallels — “the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
The book ends, a life not long after. So there is a sensation for the reader of loss, but one leavened with a sense that the writer (and the human being inside the writer) lived long and well. In the face of death, which could be described as the central crisis of human life, Oliver Sacks wrote that his predominant feeling was one of gratitude, for having loved and having been loved, for having been “a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet.” The same attitude is described by Diana Athill. It is a mature approach to life, to death, and though such sanguinity is easier read than done, readers might lay down these two slim volumes and reflect on their own lives and inevitable deaths.
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter
by Diana Athill
Published by Granta
by Oliver Sacks
Published by Picador