The Seven Good Years: A Memoir
By Etgar Keret
On the Move: A Life
By Oliver Sacks
Two contrasting memoirs published this year from a young Israeli absurdist and an elderly British researcher into mental anomalies span opposite ends of the Jewish world. Etgar Keret has produced a terse chain of recollections of life as a young father, while neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died August 30, doffed his white coat to share his personal life.
In our era of time-compressed news feeds continuously melting away, perhaps it is fitting for authors to write their memoirs while still in the upward arc of their careers as in Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure (which I reviewed in the March 17, 2014 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin) and now Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years: A Memoir. The title, of course, refers to Joseph’s prophecy of seven good years followed by seven years of famine, and this impending dread suffuses Keret’s reminiscences from the birth of his son Lev to his seventh birthday.
Keret usually writes surreal short fiction, and the episodic autobiographical pieces in Seven Good Years do not vary in length or matter-of-fact tone from his previous work. His wife’s miscarriage and his father’s terminal cancer are related in the same deadpan as one of his fictional characters discovering his body has a secret zipper that opens into another world. Certainly this tone is an intentional comment on the absurd aspects of growing up as a child of Holocaust survivors living in a nation under constant existential threat of annihilation.
Life has co-operated by providing Keret with ample absurdity. An architect built him the smallest house in Warsaw, on the street where Keret’s mother lived before the Holocaust. Keret recalls his father’s bedtime stories about gangsters and prostitutes, and notes that his father, a member of the Irgun, went to Sicily to buy rifles from the Mafia to fight the British. “He walks down the street, smiling faces wish him a good day in mellifluous Italian, and for the first time in his adult life, he doesn’t have to be afraid or hide the fact that he is a Jew.”
In the last piece in the book, “Pastrami Sandwich,” Keret, his wife and son are driving on the highway when sirens announce a rocket attack. They pull over and lie down in a ditch, and Keret invents the pastrami sandwich game – the pastrami is Lev in the middle flanked by him and his wife as bread. Lev wants to know when they will get a chance to play again, and Keret ruefully remarks that there will be many opportunities.
If Keret’s narrative seems parsimonious, Sacks is bounteous in his depiction of his personal life, from journals he kept of his experience travelling though Canada and down to California, and in his detailed descriptions of his many motorcycles and body building routines to his famous relatives Abba Eban and cartoonist Al Capp.
In On the Move: A Life, Sacks pulls back the camera on the cinematic character of his earlier works to reveal the production set of the movie. Sacks emerges as an outlier, a maverick in medical practice, also a transitional figure – beginning his neurology practice before the development of MRIs, CT scans and neuroscience, yet ahead of his time, as a storyteller and philosopher of medicine.
Sacks’ otherness was manifold, living within the bubble of an intense Jewish community in London, until his parents sent him to the countryside during the blitz to a Dickensian private school. After his father probes his sexuality and Sacks admits that he is gay, his mother, a surgeon, and enlightened in other matters, wishes that he had never been born. Homosexuality was a criminal offence in England at the time, and Sacks’ mother was raised Orthodox. Sacks brings a 19th century natural science perspective to the hard-edged science of the 20th century, and fights with his mentors in producing a book on migraines, who object to his antiquarian sources. He follows his interest in the mind into the California drug counterculture, and becomes addicted to amphetamines, which he described his book, Hallucinations.
Awakenings, perhaps his best known work, describes Sacks’ success using the drug L-DOPA to treat survivors of the Spanish flu epidemic trapped in a Parkinson-like frozen state. Through his memoir, an alternative version of his success emerges: Sacks as a loner, an outsider often at odds with his colleagues, closer to his patients than the medical profession. As he progresses to his later studies of Tourette’s syndrome, autism and various neurological anomalies, it is clear he is as much a science journalist as a member of the medical establishment, and a man who works long hours, eats dinner standing in the kitchen and writes with a novelist’s identification with his subject.