The Memory Chalet

Roger Morgan salutes a collection of personal memories from a stimulating and original historian

November 25, 2010

These essays, dictated by the late Tony Judt during his fatal illness and almost all published in The New York Review of Books, shed a revealing light on the mind of one of the most original and stimulating thinkers of our time.

Among historians, he will be long and widely remembered for his monumental 2005 work Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, a remarkable book that won praise (and prizes) for several unusual features. Unlike most histories of 20th-century Europe, it looks at the continent's East (including Russia and Turkey) in the same detailed way as it does the West, integrating its assessments of similarities and differences in a comprehensive perspective. It discusses every significant aspect of Europe's history: political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual.

Above all, the author's lively imagination and deep understanding produce a clear and vivid picture of how things were seen and felt at the time. Readers with personal memories of those past decades find themselves saying "Yes, that is just how it felt to live through the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, or the end of the Fourth French Republic": this is a book they can unhesitatingly recommend to students and others in need of a guide to this recent but elusive period. Postwar, taken together with Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, a collection of Judt's historical essays published in 2008, firmly established his reputation as an outstanding interpreter of the 20th century.

But this work is by no means his only achievement. In an interview shortly before the end of his life, Judt defined himself thus: "I see myself first and above all as a teacher of history; next a writer of European history; next a commentator on European affairs; next a public intellectual voice within the American Left; and only then an occasional, opportunistic participant in the pained American discussion of the Jewish matter."

Each of these self-defined roles points to a significant record of achievement. Judt's teaching made its mark on those he taught at the universities of Cambridge, California, Oxford and finally at New York University, where he spent his final two decades and where he established the influential Erich Maria Remarque Center for European Studies. As a writer of history, he had already produced several well-received works on French history before the crowning achievements mentioned above. One of them, an early work on the French Socialist Party's recovery after its split from the Communists in 1920, was published in a French translation by the author himself, and was prefaced by a ringing accolade from Annie Kriegel, the doyenne of historians of the French Left.

Judt's accomplishments were impressive in his other fields of work: the "commentator on European affairs" wrote A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (1996), which incisively challenged the conventional wisdom of the European Union's leaders; the "public intellectual voice within the American Left" castigated Washington (not least in his last book, Ill Fares the Land, published last summer) for its addiction to market economics and its blinkered approach to the post-Cold War world; and the commentator on "the Jewish matter" became world-famous for his onslaught on America's blind acceptance of Israel's point of view on the future of the Middle East.

What are the influences that produce such a phenomenon? Judt's huge literary output provides a number of clues. The Memory Chalet adds a new dimension, linking his personal memories (from childhood onwards) with his attitude to politics, history and life in general.

He explains in straightforward terms the devastating impact of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease) on his life, and how, once it had reduced his body to total immobility, he was able to draw on the rich resources of his memory.

His figurative "chalet" was the night-time mental device he used for ordering and recalling the components of what he planned to dictate the next day: in his mind, he would systematically file away the results of his nocturnal reflections in the "closets and drawers, shelves and corridors" of a modest Alpine hotel he had known as a boy.

The combination of an astute and well-functioning memory, an imaginative gift for making connections and the remarkable "memory chalet" for storing the details has allowed Judt to produce a collection of feuilletons, as he calls them, which make fascinating reading in their own right, and also do much to explain why his unusual intellectual life took the course it did.

A recurrent pattern throughout Judt's story is his way of combining a fairly strong identification with one human group, or another, with a specific and individual position in relation to it. He was a Londoner born and bred, but a Londoner of a special kind. He was Jewish, but his Jewish identity contained some very unusual features. For a time he was even an ardent Zionist, but his early experiences in Israel led him to deviate sharply from what Zionism would become. And he was once a Marxist, whose observations of Communist practice led him to a position he described as that of a "universalist social democrat".

These complex multiple identities must have made Judt an unusual undergraduate when he won a place at Cambridge (King's College made him an unconditional offer without requiring him even to take his A levels). After all, as he puts it, "before even turning 20, I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager".

In his teens, and even earlier, Judt developed a keen sense of the atmosphere of the London scenes that surrounded him: his picture of Putney, his home for a time, brings to life the high street shops and the river, with "abandoned skiffs rotting gently into the mud". He shows a particular sensitivity for passenger transport, and feelingly evokes the London buses of his childhood - the subtle physical and sociological differences between travelling on the big red Routemasters and the sleeker Green Line vehicles - as well as the mainline trains he used to explore the wider reaches of southern England.

His family context, however, was anything but archetypically London. His grandparents and parents came from the Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania, and the household was a babel of "Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English". The Memory Chalet records his early commitment to the kibbutz ideal of Labour Zionism, and his dismay at the blinkered nationalism and anti-Arab prejudice he encountered as a volunteer with the Israeli Defence Force in the war of 1967.

Later chapters recount his reactions - some positive, some negative, all highly readable - to life in Oxbridge, Paris and New York, where he finally settled.

Readers of this moving book will find here the same qualities that distinguish Judt's academic writings: a boundless curiosity, a vivid imagination, and a refreshing readiness to criticise some of his own earlier misjudgements and even to try to atone for them. For instance, his decision in the 1980s to learn Czech, and to immerse himself in the dissident movements that ended communism in Eastern Europe, seems to have been partly motivated by a feeling of guilt at the failure of his 1968 generation of student "revolutionaries" to recognise the real revolution that was even then brewing in the Soviet bloc, represented by the Prague Spring.

We can salute his achievements, and look forward to one more posthumous work, Thinking the Twentieth Century, completed with his colleague Timothy Snyder a few weeks before Judt's untimely death.

The author

Born in 1948 in a London Salvation Army maternity unit, Tony Judt went to Emanuel School in Battersea in 1959 - one of a few Jewish boys accepted then. Although he disliked his schooldays, he later remembered with affection his tutor, Joe Craddock, who drilled him in German so effectively that he still commanded the language 40 years on.

After gaining a bachelor's degree in history and then a doctorate from King's College, Cambridge, Judt embarked on the archival research in France that would shape his 1979 book, Socialism in Provence 1871-1914: A Study in the Origins of the Modern French Left.

Author of a number of other acclaimed works including Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (2005) and Ill Fares the Land (2010), he was also a contributor to The New Republic until an essay criticising Israeli policy led to his departure.

He lived the last quarter of his life in the US. As director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, and widely considered a top public intellectual, he was determined to use his freedom as a tenured academic to join public debate "rather than stepping aside to have fun in one's own little sandpit". In 2009, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Orwell Prize.

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

The Memory Chalet

By Tony Judt

Heinemann, 240pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780434020966

Published 4 November 2010

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