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.