Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet: Review

The great public intellectual died in August, but he left behind a final work unlike anything else he had written before. John Gray salutes a moving life that crossed the 20th century.

Tony Judt in 2006. (Luis Magàn / Newscom)

“It might be thought the height of poor taste to ascribe good fortune to a healthy man with a young family struck down at the age of 60 by an incurable degenerative disorder from which he must shortly die. But there is more than one sort of luck.” The lucky man of whom Tony Judt wrote was Judt himself, paralysed from the neck down from amyotropic lateral sclerosis, a variant of motor neurone disease. Diagnosed in 2008, Judt died of the illness at the age of 62 in August of this year. From the onset of the disease to May 2010, when he wrote The Memory Chalet, he produced “a small political book, a public lecture, some 20 feuilletons reflecting on my life, and a considerable body of interviews directed toward a full-scale study of the 20th century.” Trapped in a body in rapid decline, Judt’s brilliant mind had never been more active.

A British historian who spent the last two decades of his life working at NYU, Judt was the author of Postwar (2005), a 900-page account of the continent in the 60 years after 1945, which by any reasonable standard must count as one of the outstanding works of history published in English in the late 20th century. But Judt was also a superb essayist, and his Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008) is an example of crystalline writing and fearless judgment that can only be compared with Orwell—a fact acknowledged when he was awarded a special Orwell Prize. Judt spares no one: Useful liberal and leftist fools who denied or downplayed communist totalitarianism are assessed and dismissed as mercilessly as the neo-conservative utopians and war-mongers that enjoyed a brief taste of power in the delirious aftermath of the Cold War. The same tone of lucid anger continued in Ill Fares the Land (2010), a polemical attempt to retrieve a social-democratic language that would allow the workings of the market to be once again judged in terms of the common good, written after the disease had begun its inexorable advance.

The Memory Chalet is quite different from anything Judt ever wrote. Originally composed simply for his own satisfaction, these last essays—25 recollections of a life that Judt knew was near its end—were scheduled for publication only after they had been shown to his literary agent and Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books (where many of them first appeared). The style is as lapidary as ever, but strangely the mood is lighter than before. Writing of the quality of life in postwar Britain, Judt comments, “Just because you grow up on bad food, it does not follow that you lack nostalgia for it.” Judt’s mother—born in “the least Jewish part of the old London East End”—cooked in the English style—“hopelessly, helplessly bland.” Happily, as soon as he left home Judt was able to turn to the curry houses that were beginning to open in London and Cambridge. “Indian food made more English.” So what would be the Proustian madeleine that would bring back his youthful self, Judt asks? “Naan dunked in matzoh ball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras.”

Judt’s memory chalet was a self-built version of the mnemonic devices used by early modern thinkers to recall their thoughts and travelers to store the sights they had seen. Modelled on the modest Alpine pensiones where he stayed during family holidays in the late 1950s, Judt’s interior chalet was constructed during long nights of immobility when he was forced to endure what he describes as a “cockroach-like existence.” Once built, the chalet proved to be pleasantly roomy. Each of the short pieces recounts a different world: the Green Line London buses he used from the late '50s into the early '60s, first to go to school then to attend Zionist youth meetings or a tryst with a girlfriend; the “scouts” and “bedders” of Oxford and Cambridge, college servants who were still looking after undergraduates in the '60s when Judt was at King’s, whose “subtle grasp of the realities of human exchange” he recalls with a surprising gentle fondness; re-discovering his east European Jewish inheritance, after teaching himself Czech in the 1980s and forming links with dissident intellectuals in communist countries; migrating from Thatcherite Britain to America, where he found himself feeling distinctly European; settling in New York, where he felt even more a European—much more so than in “the EU’s semi-detached British satellite”; the subtle contrasts of stodgy Switzerland, a country Judt liked for what it showed of the possibilities—and therefore, the benefits—of blended identities.” Each of these beautifully crafted pieces presents a self-contained vignette. Together they form a picture of an age, seen through the prism of an extraordinary mind.

“Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it a nicer name.”

A truth-teller by nature, Judt never pretended that the illness that befell him was a hidden blessing. “Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it a nicer name.” But if tragedy cannot be redeemed it can sometimes be defied, as Judt confirms in this exquisitely graceful memoir of a happy life.

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John Gray's' The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death is published by Farrar Straus Giroux in March of next year.