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Authors: Paul Auster

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When and where his parents met, who they had been in early life, how their respective families reacted to the prospect of a mixed marriage, at what point they moved to Connecticut—all this falls outside the realm of what I am able to discuss. As far as I know, Sachs had a secular upbringing. He was both a Jew and a Catholic, which meant that he was neither one nor the other. I don’t recall that he ever talked about going to religious school, and to the best of my knowledge he was neither confirmed nor bar mitzvahed. The fact that he was circumcised was no more than a medical detail. On several occasions, however, he alluded to a religious crisis that took place in his middle teens, but evidently it burned itself out rather quickly. I was always impressed by his familiarity with the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), and perhaps he started reading it back then, during that period of inner struggle. Sachs was more interested in politics and history than in spiritual questions, but his politics were nevertheless tinged with something I would call a religious quality, as if political engagement were more than a way of confronting problems in the here and now, but a means to personal salvation as well. I believe this is an important point. Sachs’s political
ideas never fell into any of the conventional categories. He was wary of systems and ideologies, and though he could talk about them with considerable understanding and sophistication, political action for him boiled down to a matter of conscience. That was what made him decide to go to prison in 1968. It wasn’t because he thought he could accomplish anything there, but because he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t go. If I had to sum up his attitude toward his own beliefs, I would begin by mentioning the Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century. Thoreau was his model, and without the example of “Civil Disobedience,” I doubt that Sachs would have turned out as he did. I’m not just talking about prison now, but a whole approach to life, an attitude of remorseless inner vigilance. Once, when
Walden
came up in conversation, Sachs confessed to me that he wore a beard “because Henry David had worn one”—which gave me a sudden insight into how deep his admiration was. As I write these words now, it occurs to me that they both lived the same number of years. Thoreau died at forty-four, and Sachs wouldn’t have passed him until next month. I don’t suppose there’s anything to be made of this coincidence, but it’s the kind of thing that Sachs always liked, a small detail to be noted for the record.

His father worked as a hospital administrator in Norwalk, and from all I can gather the family was neither well-to-do nor particularly strapped. Two daughters were born first, then Ben came along, and then there was a third daughter, all four of them arriving within a span of six or seven years. Sachs seems to have been closer to his mother than his father (she is still alive, he is not), but I never sensed that there were any great conflicts between father and son. As an example of his stupidity as a little boy, Sachs once mentioned to me how upset he had been when he learned that his father hadn’t fought in World War II. In light of Sachs’s later position, that response becomes almost comical, but who knows how severely his disappointment
affected him back then? All his friends used to brag about their fathers’ exploits as soldiers, and he envied them for the battle trophies they would trot out for the war games they played in their suburban backyards: the helmets and cartridge belts, the holsters and canteens, the dog tags, hats, and medals. But why his father hadn’t served in the army was never explained to me. On the other hand, Sachs always spoke proudly of his father’s socialist politics in the thirties, which apparently involved union organizing or some other job connected with the labor movement. If Sachs gravitated more toward his mother than his father, I think it was because their personalities were so alike: both of them garrulous and blunt, both of them endowed with an uncanny talent for getting others to talk about themselves. According to Fanny (who told me as much about these things as Ben ever did), Sachs’s father was quieter and more evasive than his mother, more closed in on himself, less inclined to let you know what he was thinking. Still, there must have been a strong bond between them. The most certain proof I can think of comes from a story that Fanny once told me. Not long after Ben’s arrest, a local reporter came to the house to interview her father-in-law about the trial. The journalist was clearly looking to write a story about generational conflict (a big subject back in those days), but once Mr. Sachs caught wind of his intentions, this normally subdued and taciturn man pounded his fist on the arm of the chair, looked the journalist straight in the eye, and said: “Ben is a terrific kid. We always taught him to stand up for what he believes in, and I’d be crazy not to be proud of what he’s doing now. If there were more young men like my son in this country, it would be a hell of a lot better place.”

I never met his father, but I remember a Thanksgiving that I spent at his mother’s house extremely well. The visit came a few weeks after Ronald Reagan was elected president, which means it
was November 1980—going on ten years now. It was a bad time in my life. My first marriage had broken up two years before, and I wasn’t destined to meet Iris until the end of February, a good three months down the road. My son David was just over three then, and his mother and I had arranged for him to spend the holiday with me, but the plans I made for us had fallen through at the last minute. The alternatives seemed rather grim: either go out to a restaurant somewhere or eat frozen turkey dinners at my small apartment in Brooklyn. Just when I was beginning to feel sorry for myself (it could have been as late as Monday or Tuesday), Fanny rescued the situation by asking us up to Ben’s mother’s house in Connecticut. All the nieces and nephews would be there, she said, and it was bound to be fun for David.

Mrs. Sachs has since moved to a retirement home, but at the time she was still living in the house in New Canaan where Ben and his sisters had grown up. It was a big place just outside town that looked to have been built in the second half of the nineteenth century, one of those gabled Victorian labyrinths with pantry closets, back staircases, and odd little passageways on the second floor. The interiors were dark, and the living room was cluttered with piles of books, newspapers, and magazines. Mrs. Sachs must have been in her mid to late sixties then, but there was nothing old or grandmotherly about her. She had been a social worker for many years in the poor neighborhoods of Bridgeport, and it wasn’t hard to see that she had been good at her job: an outspoken woman, full of opinions, with a brash, cockeyed sense of humor. She seemed to be amused by many things, a person given to neither sentimentality nor bad temper, but whenever the subject turned to politics (as it did quite often that day), she proved to have a wickedly sharp tongue. Some of her remarks were downright raunchy, and at one point, when she called Nixon’s convicted associates “the sort of men who fold up their underpants before
they go to bed at night,” one of her daughters glanced at me with an embarrassed look on her face, as if to apologize for her mother’s unladylike behavior. She needn’t have worried. I took an immense liking to Mrs. Sachs that day. She was a subversive matriarch who still enjoyed throwing punches at the world, and she seemed as ready to laugh at herself as at everyone else—her children and grandchildren included. Not long after I got there, she confessed to me that she was a terrible cook, which was why she had delegated the responsibility of preparing the dinner to her daughters. But, she added (and here she drew close to me and whispered in my ear), those three girls were none too swift in the kitchen either. After all, she said, she had taught them everything they knew, and if the teacher was an absentminded clod, what could you expect of the disciples?

It’s true that the meal was dreadful, but we scarcely had time to notice. What with so many people in the house that day, and the constant racket of five children under the age of ten, our mouths were kept busier with talk than with food. Sachs’s family was a noisy bunch. His sisters and their husbands had flown in from various parts of the country, and since most of them hadn’t seen each other in a long while, the dinner conversation quickly became a free-for-all, with everyone talking at once. At any given moment, four or five separate dialogues were going on across the table, but because people weren’t necessarily talking to the person next to them, these dialogues kept intersecting with one another, causing abrupt shifts in the pairings of the speakers, so that everyone seemed to be taking part in all the conversations at the same time, simultaneously chattering away about his or her own life and eavesdropping on everyone else as well. Add to this the frequent interruptions from the children, the comings and goings of the different courses, the pouring of wine, the dropped plates, overturned glasses, and spilled condiments, the dinner began to resemble an elaborate, hastily improvised vaudeville routine.

It was a sturdy family, I thought, a teasing, fractious group of individuals who cared for one another but didn’t cling to the life they had shared in the past. It was refreshing for me to see how little animosity there was among them, how few old rivalries and resentments came to the surface, but at the same time there wasn’t much intimacy, they didn’t seem as connected to one another as the members of most successful families are. I know that Sachs was fond of his sisters, but only in an automatic and somewhat distant sort of way, and I don’t think he was particularly involved with any of them during his adult life. It might have had something to do with his being the only boy, but whenever I happened to catch a glimpse of him during the course of that long afternoon and evening, he seemed to be talking either to his mother or to Fanny, and he probably showed more interest in my son David than in any of his own nephews or nieces. I doubt that I’m trying to make a specific point about this. These kinds of partial observations are subject to any number of errors and misreadings, but the fact is that Sachs behaved like something of a loner in his own family, a figure who stood slightly apart from the rest. That isn’t to say that he shunned anyone, but there were moments when I sensed that he was ill at ease, almost bored by having to be there.

Based on the little I know about it, his childhood seems to have been unremarkable. He didn’t do especially well in school, and if he won honors for himself in any way, it was only to the extent that he excelled at pranks. He was apparently fearless in confronting authority, and to listen to him tell it, he spent the years from about six to twelve in a continuous ferment of creative sabotage. He was the one who designed the booby traps, who fastened the Kick Me signs on the teacher’s back, who set off the firecrackers in the cafeteria garbage cans. He spent hundreds of hours sitting in the principal’s office during those years, but punishment was a small price to pay
for the satisfaction these triumphs gave him. The other boys respected him for his boldness and invention, which was probably what inspired him to take such risks in the first place. I’ve seen some of Sachs’s early photographs, and there’s no question that he was an ugly duckling, a genuine sore thumb: one of those beanstalk assemblages with big ears, buck teeth, and a goofy, lopsided grin. The potential for ridicule must have been enormous; he must have been a walking target for all sorts of jokes and savage stings. If he managed to avoid that fate, it was because he forced himself to be a little wilder than everyone else. It couldn’t have been the most pleasant role to play, but he worked hard at mastering it, and after a while he held undisputed dominion over the territory.

Braces aligned his crooked teeth; his body filled out; his limbs gradually learned to obey him. By the time he reached adolescence, Sachs began to resemble the person he would later become. His height worked to his advantage in sports, and when he started to play basketball at thirteen or fourteen, he quickly developed into a promising player. The practical jokes and renegade antics died out then, and while his academic performance in high school was hardly outstanding (he always described himself as a lazy student, with only minimal interest in getting good grades), he read books constantly and was already beginning to think of himself as a future writer. By his own admission, his first works were awful—“romantico-absurdist soul-searchings,” he once called them, wretched little stories and poems that he kept an absolute secret from everyone. But he stuck with it, and as a sign of his growing seriousness, he went out and bought himself a pipe at the age of seventeen. This was the badge of every true writer, he thought, and during his last year of high school he spent every evening sitting at his desk, pen in one hand, pipe in the other, filling his room with smoke.

These stories came straight from Sachs himself. They helped to
define my sense of what he had been like before I met him, but as I repeat his comments now, I realize that they could have been entirely false. Self-deprecation was an important element of his personality, and he often used himself as the butt of his own jokes. Especially when talking about the past, he liked to portray himself in the most unflattering terms. He was always the ignorant kid, the pompous fool, the mischief-maker, the bungling oaf. Perhaps that was how he wanted me to see him, or perhaps he found some perverse pleasure in pulling my leg. For the fact is that it takes a great deal of self-confidence for a person to poke fun at himself, and a person with that kind of self-confidence is rarely a fool or a bungler.

There is only one story from that early period that I feel at all confident about. I heard it toward the end of my visit to Connecticut in 1980, and since it came as much from his mother as it did from him, it falls into a different category from the rest. In itself, this anecdote is less dramatic than some of the others Sachs told me, but looking at it now from the perspective of his whole life, it stands out in special relief—as though it were the announcement of a theme, the initial statement of a musical phrase that would go on haunting him until his last moments on earth.

BOOK: Leviathan
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