“The Memory Chalet” by Tony Judt

The problem with this book is that it must be read through two totally different lenses. First, it is the memoir of a dying man. Judt suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, one of the cruelest neurodegenerative maladies. ALS leaves the mind trapped in a paralyzed, helpless body. Judt died two years after he was diagnosed. His original symptoms were those of a mild stroke.

Judt’s work must also be judged in light of his (high) academic standing and status as a “public intellectual”. I’m no judge of academics and have little knowledge of “public intellectuals”, though I’m inclined to think we need more of them, or perhaps should pay better attention to those we have. (Judt solves one of my problems by telling me where to FIND public intellectuals – The New York Review of Books.)

So what about The Memory Chalet? It’s a charming book. The “chalet” is Judt’s alternative to The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (by JD Spence). Suffering through torturous nights in his quadriplegic condition, Judt needed a mental “device”, a mnemonic, to remember the essays he “wrote” in his head. He remembered a chalet in Switzerland where his family used to vacation. It was a humble, 12 room hostel he recalled in comprehensive detail and which had, for him, a wonderfully positive ambience. Moving through it in his mind allowed him to organize his ideas and recall them later for dictation to an assistant.

What did he write? A great deal was about his childhood and education. He loved trains, hated school, became aware of his Jewish identity… The picture he paints of post war England is detailed. It’s hard for us, looking back, to understand what “austerity” meant. Judt fills in the details, and also elucidates the sense of solidarity, of unity, that England experienced after WW II (and has since lost).

Judt became interested in politics very young (14?) and embraced Zionism and socialism to the extent of spending extensive holidays on a Kibbutz. His parents were displeased when he spoke of moving to Israel permanently. Of these experiences, he says “Before even turning twenty I had become, been and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.” To the relief of his family, he enrolled at Cambridge and studied history.

What about Judt the “public intellectual”? He taught at various universities and wrote extensively. His original field was criticism of French historians (hope I got that right). He says his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2006) secured “public intellectual” status for him. He tried to overcome the Western European habit of ignoring important events in Eastern Europe. He describes his decision to learn the Czech language as a turning point in his intellectual evolution.

Judt described himself as a “universalist social democrat”. It’s going to take me a while to parse that. In the meantime, I think it would make a good mantra.

I might read Postwar, but more likely will look at Thinking the Twentieth Century (published posthumously, coauthored by T Snyder) first. Written in dialogue format, it is sounds accessible to non-historians like me.

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