The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt


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I will confess upfront that Tony Judt has been a KfC favorite for some years. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I galloped through his epic work Postwar (assuming that it is possible to “gallop through” an 850-page book) — it told me all I needed to know about the history of post-war Europe. And I very much appreciated his more recent essays in the New York Review of Books which cast a thoughtful critical eye on contemporary American involvement in global politics.

Like many readers, I was dismayed when word arrived that he had been diagnosed with ALS and the inevitable end that that meant. The later news that a collection of feuilletons (most first published in the NYRB), The Memory Chalet, was on the way was both welcome — there would be a final collection to read — and anything but welcome: it would be so final.

Tony Judt was born in January, 1948, one month before my own birth. His background and education were English, mine Canadian. But we both grew up and prospered in a post-war global community — I won’t compare my humble journalistic work to his outstanding historical studies, but both of us did end up spending our working lives trying to write about the world around us. The Memory Chalet sat on my shelf for a year simply because I was reluctant to say goodbye to a writing “friend” — it was the reading of Adam Gopnik’s Massey Lectures, published under the title Winter, that convinced me the time had arrived to read Judt’s final volume.

The Preface and two introductory essays in the book brought tears to my eyes. In the very short preface, Judt explains that these pieces were never intended for publication; rather they were dictated by him at the encouragement of fellow historian Timothy Garton Ash “who urged me to turn to advantage the increasing internal reference of my own thoughts.” In the second introductory essay, Judt is unflinching in describing what was involved in the process:

The salient quality of this particular neurodegenerative disorder is that it leaves your mind clear to reflect upon the past, present, and future, but steadily deprives you of any means of converting those reflections into words. First you can no longer write independently, requiring either an assistant or a machine in order to record your thoughts. Then your legs fail and you cannot take in new experiences, except at the cost of such logistical complexity that the mere fact of mobility becomes the object of attention rather than the benefits that mobility itself can confer.

Next you begin to lose your voice: not just in the metaphorical sense of having to speak through assorted mechanical or human intermediaries, but quite literally in that the diaphragm muscles can no longer pump sufficient air across your vocal cords to furnish them with the variety of pressure required to express meaningful sound. By this point you are almost certainly quadrapeligic and condemned to long hours of silent immobility, whether or not in the presence of others.

Nighttime is the worst time for Judt — after being carefully arranged, his body is “frozen” for six or seven hours, with sleep eventually arriving. Before it does, his mind, unaffected by the condition, roams and it is in this process that he discovers his “memory chalet” (based on childhood vacation experiences in French-speaking Switzerland) where he can rebuild and reorder some of his life experiences and place them in a friendly environment.

Don’t let that gloomy introduction put you off the book. It is important for the reader to understand what produced these essays and the author does that — by page 21 of a 226-page book the stage-setting is done and there is not a word of self-pity in the remaining 23 essays of the book.

It is also fitting that Switzerland becomes the “home” for Judt’s chalet — a global financial centre, multilingual and multicultural, socially conservative but politically a sort of leftish neutral, it represents the kind of detached, observant, non-ideological, disciplined place that reflects his own life experience. Born in working class London (home was an apartment above the hair-dressing shop where his parents worked), Judt’s youthful radical days were spent as a kibbutz volunteer. That escapade ended with a scholarship offer to King’s College, Cambridge (the kibbutz would have never let him accept), followed by graduate schooling at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and further study in Germany. Teaching posts at Oxford and Cambridge followed, before Judt headed to the United States, teaching in California, and finally arriving in New York, the global city where he spent the last decades of his life. As he makes clear in some of the later essays in the volume, he was “at home” in some ways in all these places but not really “at home” in any, except perhaps the non-American, global version of New York.

The structure of the book — and each essay — reflects the process he describes in the opening essays. A memory, usually simple, springs to mind and sets off a series of (sometimes remotely) connected further thoughts that become increasingly complex, although never dauntingly so. The first seven pieces in the book proper are inspired by images that come from his childhood — let me quote the opening paragraphs from the first, “Austerity”, as a representative example of the style that will pervade the book:

My wife earnestly instructs Chinese restaurants to deliver in cardboard cartons. My children are depressingly knowledgable about climate change. Ours is an environmental family: by their standards, I am a prelapsarian relic from the age of ecological innocence. But who traipses through the apartment switching off lights and checking for leaking faucets? Who favors make-do-and-mend in an era of instant replacement? Who recycles leftovers and carefully preserves old wrapping paper? My sons nudge their friends: Dad grew up in poverty. Not at all, I correct them: I grew up in austerity.

After the war everything was in short supply. Churchill had mortgaged Great Britain and bankrupted the Treasury in order to defeat Hitler. Clothes were rationed until 1949, cheap and simple “utility furniture” until 1952, food until 1954. The rules were briefly suspended for the coronation of Elizabeth, in June 1953: everyone was allowed one extra pound of sugar and four ounces of margarine. But this exercise in supererogatory generosity served only to underscore the dreary regime of daily life.

From 21st century Chinese takeway in cardboard cartons, to Churchill’s war leadership, to postwar austerity marked by the treat of four extra ounces of margarine — all in the space of a few hundred words. Those are the kinds of connections that a great mind, imprisoned in physical immobility, goes through; it is to Judt’s credit that he makes sense out of that strange (dis)order in every essay.

The titles of the seven essays in Part One are pointers enough of the stepping off points for Judt’s childhood memories: Austerity, Food, Cars, Putney, The Green Line Bus, Mimetic Desire, The Lord Warden (okay, that one might need a bit of explanation — it was the flagship British Railways’ ferry between Dover and Calais that was the Judt family favorite). I did not make my first trip to London until 1975, but I can tell you every one of these essays struck a chord with this Canadian.

The eight essays of Part Two are sparked by Judt’s memories as a student — starting with “Joe”, his teacher of O-level German, through “Bedder” (the Cambridge version of the Oxford “scout”) to “Revolutionaries” (it was the Sixties and he was in France) and finally “Words”, the tool that will become his life.

The opening essay of Part Three, “Go West, Young Judt”, supplies hint enough at the theme for the final section — the mature Judt did go West and some of the other titles (“Midlife Crisis”, “Captive Minds”) offer incentive enough to attract any reader. I would point in particular to “New York, New York”, an essay that contemplates the idea of a “world city” through time, with a concluding paragraph that begins:

New York — a city more at home in the world than in its home country — may do better still. As a European, I feel more myself in New York than in the EU’s semi-detached British satellite: and I have Brazilian and Arab friends here who share the sentiment.

I am at a rare loss for words in trying to describe how much I was impressed by the memories and ideas that are captured in this book — I have read it twice already and will be picking it up again soon. Part of me does wonder (as it did with Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending) how much of that positive response comes from being of Judt’s generation — I’ll be interested in how younger readers respond.

Certainly, Tony Judt has a deserved reputation as one of the most outstanding historians of our time. The Memory Chalet provides a highly personal, but equally important, closing chapter to his career. Whatever your age and however many tears it brings to your eyes, it is a book not to be missed.


20 Responses to “The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I was incredibly touched by Judt’s late pieces in the NYRB, and I hoped they’d be compiled somewhere. Obviously I should have looked a bit harder : ).

    At any rate, this is a must for me. I’d rank the essays I have already read from this collection among the best I’ve ever read anywhere.

    So, while I’m waiting for my blog problems to get cleaned up, I’ll go looking for this . . .


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I also had read a number along the way in the NYRB. As much as I appreciated them (I’ll admit that a pervasive sadness of “might this be the last” was a depressing factor when I read them there), I have to say the collection adds another dimension to the experience. As you read through it, there is a cumulative appreciation of an outstanding life lived — and the observations made along the way become even more evocative.

    I will also be interested in your thoughts on his portrayal of New York — as a globe-trotting citizen now located in the city yourself, you have a special perspective when it comes to those essays.


  3. leroyhunter Says:

    I had high expectations of this book, and in almost every regard they were exceeded. I hadn’t read any of the pieces before (or, indeed, anything by Tony Judt) but once I started I could not stop until I ran out of book. And I was so unhappy when it ended that I immediately reread it all over again, something I normally never do.

    The opening sections describing his predicament and method are gripping, appalling, but it was only towards the end of the book that the full weight of sadness they contain was revealed to me. This wonderful mind, now imprisoned; this full and engaged life now coming to an end.

    I thought this book was many things: funny, salutary, alarmingly candid and self-aware. And there are a couple of flashes of quite riveting anger. Finishing it I felt immensely foolish for not having read Judt before: I went out and bought Ill Fares the Land the next day.

    I didn’t know of your prior regard for Judt, Kevin, but reading your thoughts now it isn’t in the least surprising. You’ve captured the essence of this book perfectly, and like you I feel quite zealous about encouraging people to read it. I’ll echo your final thought: not to be missed.


  4. Kerry Says:

    I cannot say I would have been likely to pick this up, but you’ve made a strong case for it. From your description, The Memory Chalet does seem to share some themes with The Sense of and Ending (which I’ve just finished and enjoyed).

    I’ve never lived in New York, but it feels like a home I want to adopt into whenever I visit, which is far less often than I’d like. I like that aspect too. What I am saying is that I think I’d enjoy an insightful and cosmopolitan (is there any other kind?) New Yorker’s observations on the great city.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thank you for such well-articulated thoughts — I won’t expand on them beyond underlining again that this is a book not to be missed (whether or not you know Tony Judt’s previous work). I’ve read some of the essays in Ill Fares The Land but not the whole collection yet. I’ll get to it some time in the next year for sure.

    Kerry: I did find echoes of some aspects of Barnes’ novel (and in a way Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good as well). Even if you are not into memoirs (which I am not) or essays, this book has a lot to say about the last 60 years. And given your thoughts about New York, I think you will find all of Part Three interesting — I certainly did.


  6. Gavin Says:

    Thank you for this. It reminded me that I’ve had The Memory Chalet on my TBR list for a while.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gavin: I suspect that, like Leroy and I, once you start it you will find it hard to put down.


  8. Anna van Gelderen Says:

    As it happened I finished this collection yesterday and I was just as impressed as you were, even though I am 10 years younger than Judt. One of the things that struck me, was that even though many of these essays seem to have been published separately and in haphazard order before being collected here, the book conveys a sense of unity and finish that I had not expected somehow.


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anna: I agree with your concluding sentence — the collection reads like a cohesive narrative, even inside the three parts. My assumption is that Judt used the device of locating each in a “room” in his memory chalet and that led to organizing them in a fashion that serves the reader very well.


  10. Graham Says:

    I read The Memory Chalet about a year ago felt that it was a very interesting and poignant memoir of a true intellectual.


  11. ted Says:

    The Memory Chalet was the best piece of non fiction that I read last year – truly a great book. I’m glad to read your positive reaction to his history of Post-war Europe as its length daunted me. This was the first of Judt’s book’s I had read and I really want to read more.


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Graham, Ted: Thanks for adding your endorsements — they help to show that this is a very special book.

    Postwar as a physical volume is daunting when you look at it, but Judt’s style makes it an easier book to read. It is organized by country, so it is broken down into much more manageable parts. He is a good storyteller, even when dealing with history — even as someone who does not know some of the countries of Europe very well, I found the book to be enjoyrable to read as well as enlightening.


  13. dovegreyreader Says:

    I have been reading this on Kindle and that has been great for rationing them rather than reading cover to cover too quickly, which unusually for me felt like something I didn’t want to do here. It’s a treasure Kevin and thank you for recommending it here last year when you did.


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: I’m heartened that you are enjoying it as much as I did. As a child almost of the era who grew up there, I suspect you are finding some things that I did not.


    • dovegreyreader Says:

      Kevin I have a long list of very familiar memories that reading the book has evoked. My own experience of the 711 Green Line bus for a start, and all enough to make me look it up to check the route and make sure I had remembered the number and the fact it went to High Wycombe, and that after about 50 years! It did, Green Lines the height of unaffordable luxury for us 1950’s working class, whilst High Wycombe may as well have been Outer Mongolia to me watching it go past the stop as I waited patiently for the 118 bog-standard red bus to get me to school.


  15. Charlotte Says:

    This morning just after I read the NYT review of Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Center, I went back to your entry on The Memory Chalet. The two taken together make it clear what an intellectual and important figure Tony Judt must have been. I would love to hear your thoughts on the review, knowing what you do about Tony Judt.


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Charlotte: First, had you not asked for my opinion I probably would have decided not to read the review, once I noticed that it was written by Francis Fukuyama. I am one of those who find it not useful at all when newspaper book sections send works out to be reviewed by a known “dissenter” of the author or someone who represents an “opposing” school. Judt and Fukuyama were/are both “public” intellectuals as well as academics — their different world views, particularly regarding Israel and the Middle East, are well known so I would have expected a mere continuation of a debate that I know, rather than insight into the book.

    Which is pretty much what I got. The reviewer is an honest enough academic that his summary of Judt’s career seems fair (but that information is hardly new). Note, however, that most of the opinions he has to offer seem to be based on objections to Judt’s general oeuvre (and personal intellectual history) and not what is presented in the volume under review. Indeed, there is precious little in the review related to the book — it is more a summary of a dispute that went on for some time before Judt’s death.

    Having said that, the review did confirm my previous impression that I would not be interested in this book. I certainly appreciate Judt as an historian, even if I don’t always agree with him. And I appreciate the essays in The Memory Chalet in the way they provide a version of the story of his life. A “conversation” devoted to his prescriptions on current events has much less interest for me — from his articles in the NYRB, I think I have a pretty good idea of just what they are. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, so I’m afraid a book would have to have more appeal than this one does to reward the time invested.


  17. Parrish Says:

    Not a writer I’m aware of, so thank you for introducing to what seems a fantastic read.


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