In 2008 historian Tony Judt was diagnosed with ALS. Two years later he was dead at age 62. In the interval that marked the course of his dreadful disease, Judt discovered, as he struggled wakeful through the long hours of darkness, that he was “writing whole stories in my head in the course of the night,” fashioning them out of fragments of memory he stored in compartments that matched the rooms of a Swiss chalet he had visited as a 10-year-old. The product is this volume of more than two dozen penetrating essays (most of them previously published in the New York Review of Books) --- insightful, reflective, caustic, humorous --- that range over the course of a vital, productive, if too brief, life.
The opening section of THE MEMORY CHALET captures Judt’s reminiscences of his life growing up in London after World War II, skillfully evoking that period while at the same time moving effortlessly from personal recollection to commentary on broader social and cultural issues. In “Austerity,” he recalls the “characteristic shortages and grayness of postwar Britain” but recognizes that “austerity was not just an economic condition: it aspired to a public ethic,” contrasting that with contemporary life in which we have “substituted endless commerce for public purpose, and expect no higher aspirations from our leaders.” In a more lighthearted vein is “Food,” Judt’s paean to the pleasures of Jewish and Indian cuisine, a stark contrast to standard English fare (“Just because you grow up on bad food, it does not follow that you lack nostalgia for it.”). “Cars” pays a poignant tribute to his father’s obsession with the Citroën: “What other men sought and found in alcohol and mistresses, my father sublimated into his love affair with a car company --- which no doubt accounts for my mother’s instinctive hostility to the whole business.” Travel --- by bus, train and ferry --- is a recurring theme, not surprising for a man who described his final illness as like living in a prison that grows smaller by six inches every day.
The central group of essays range widely over Judt’s education, formal and informal. There’s a portrait of “Joe,” his German teacher, “a gaunt, misanthropic survivor of some unspecified wartime experience,” whose brutal teaching methods “would be impossible today.” Yet in the end, Judt, who spent a lifetime teaching, concludes that “being well taught is the only thing worth remembering from school.” An unsentimental account of his teenage experiences on a kibbutz explains what turned him against the idea of collectivism and into a “universalist social democrat.” Several essays touch on the protest movements of the 1960s. Admonishing the lack of seriousness demonstrated by his baby boomer contemporaries, he writes, “We did not change the world; rather, the world changed obligingly for us.”
The final section of THE MEMORY CHALET offers an assortment of perspectives on the subject of identity, focusing on Judt’s adopted homeland, the United States. Having driven cross country seven times, by his count, his sense of this country was broad and deep, affectionate and yet without illusions: “It is an old-new land engaged in perennial self-discovery (usually at others’ expense): an empire sheathed in preindustrial myths, dangerous and innocent.” “Mid-Life Crisis” explains his decision to learn Czech at age 32, a decision that had a profound effect on his life as a “public intellectual” (a term he professes to find “unhelpful”). In “Toni,” a piece whose ending is so stunning (and so fitting) it would border on the criminal to reveal it, he explores the question of Jewish identity. Though Judt was a nonobservant Jew whose views on Israel (he was a harsh critic of Zionism and favored a single-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) provoked considerable criticism in his later years, his insights on what it means to be Jewish in the post-Holocaust world are worth quoting at length:
“I choose to invoke a Jewish past that is impervious to orthodoxy: that opens conversations rather than closes them. Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling…of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.”
That same sensibility is the hallmark of Tony Judt’s incisive mind as it shimmers across the pages of this slim, but deeply impressive, collection. Without the limitations imposed by his terrible affliction, who knows if he would have produced these essays. That he did is an extraordinary tribute to him and a priceless bequest to us.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (email@example.com) on October 4, 2011