on 18 November 2010
This is a wonderful book and reminds us, if we need any reminding, that we have lost, with Tony Judt's untimely death in August, perhaps the foremost historian of our troubled times.The Memory Chalet is a memoir that traces Judt's life from a secular Jewish childhood in South London to his last years as the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University. Each short chapter is arranged thematically and his descriptions of Putney, of solitary excursions to the countryside on the then publicly owned Green Line Buses, trolleybuses and British Rail as well as his other childhood and adolescent recollections of life in the 1950s and early 1960s tenderly evoke a Britain where there was still a sense of public purpose and community now largely replaced by a culture of individual selfishness and what Judt terms an "impoverished view of community - the `togetherness' of consumption". But what distinguishes this book is Judt's wit, humanity and wisdom. As he takes us through his education at Cambridge and the Ecole Normale Superieure and his life teaching in Oxford and later in America there are astute critiques of today's emphasis on utilitarian approaches to secondary and higher education whose justification is almost solely in terms of education's contribution to the economy and the level of salary of its beneficiaries. And there is an underlying anger in the book at the growth of inequality in Anglo-American society and of the servitude of politicians and commentators to neo-liberal capitalism and unregulated market orthodoxy.
Both The Memory Chalet and Judt's advocacy of a modernized social democratic politics,Ill fares the Land, published earlier this year, were composed while he was totally immobilized by the motor neuron disease that was to lead to his death within a few months of their publication. The books are a testament to his courage and a fitting memorial to a great historian and a wise and humane man.
on 15 January 2011
A captivating little book of recollections, reminiscences, reflections and essays. They are delightful and warm, even uplifting, although the background for the book is sad: while dictating the stories, the author Tony Judt was dying from ALS, a motor neuron disease that in a short span of time killed his body, but left his mind intact. Reconstructing memories and delightful short stories was for him a way of enduring pain.
In an interview shortly before passing away, he says what we all know :`I was always good with words'; and he imagines his children reading the stories decades from now, and say: `This was our dad.'
I believe that the stories will continue to remind us of life's beauty. Perhaps Tony saw it more clearly knowing that there was so little time left. From my own childhood, I remember H C Andersen's little Match Girl, who in her last moments saw what escapes the rest of us: `No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen ...'
Readers of Tony Judt's other books, `Postwar' the best known of them, will recall an unparalleled master of the English language. That alone gives me much reading pleasure. It is a book you enjoy the second time as well. We are all able to recognize the themes in the stories; for Tony, early childhood in London, austerity, busses, school, trains, and Cambridge, but only Tony Judt can infuse the stories with humanity and keep us in stitches.
For some years, I have enjoyed Tony Judt's essays and reviews in New York Review of Books; and I will miss them, sorely. My favorite bookstore and coffee shop has New York Review of Books displayed, a new one each week. I couldn't wait to read the next one of his essays. (Some are now collected in a separate book, called Reappraisals.)
Born a few years after the war, a member of the baby boom generation, Tony Judt spent his formative years in Europe, and summers in kibbutzim in Israel, spoke the languages, was early on immersed in left wing political trends, and out of all of it, he formed his own ideas later in life. In his professional life he was a Professor. (This reviewer shares these experiences.)
In his career, Tony Judt was a professor at NYU, director of the Remarque Institute, dedicated to the study of Europe, history and culture. By the way, Remarque is the author of "All Quiet at the Western Front. --- -- Review by Palle Jorgensen, Jan 2011.
Tony Judt, a British born and educated historian, died in August, 2010, at the age of 62 of ALS. In his final months, he wrote - with the aid of transcribers - a series of essays about his life. Not strictly an autobiography - or even a memoir - the essays provide a touchstone of sorts into the mind of this brilliant man.
The book begins and ends with Switzerland. The holidays in Judt's early years often were taken in the Swiss resort of Chesieres, in the Villers area. He returns to the area - in his mind, at least, because his body can't take the trip - and remembers a chalet his family once stayed in. That chalet - and the memories to brings back to Judt - has remained a "constant" in his life. He compares his life in the current state - completely paralysed - to that chalet in Villers. In between, the essays cover other parts of his life, including his family and education in London and his life since his education at Cambridge. He taught in Paris and spent most of his life, since graduate school, living and teaching in the US. He was a professor at NYU and the author of several noted histories at the time of his death.
Judt died with his mind active in a body that deserted him. How trapped he must have felt. The essays in his book do not give the idea of a life shrinking into itself as much as it does how a shrinking mind expands to look at the world around him. He writes about his secular Jewish family and his youthful Zionism. Even though he continued the family tradition of living in a secular world he maintains enough of a Jewish identity to tell the reader - in one of the final essays - just where his name "Tony" came from. The other essays range from profound and serious to profound and humorous. Just like life, I guess.
"The Memory Chalet" is a group of marvelous, moving essays which come together to give a remarkable man - trapped in terrible circumstances - a way to understand his life. A very moving book.
on 27 December 2010
The author while writing the book completed in May 2010 was terminally ill afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a neurogenerative disorder and died in August. The disease left him completely paralysed with intact only the clarity of his mind. He dictated the essays not with a view to publishing them but rather as an escape of the present through reconstructing memories of the past. The book comprise 25 essays and a time span of fifty years from his early childhood in the early fifties to his full maturity in the early 21st century. The book is at the same time the swan song work of Tony Judt and a minor classic.
The author, Historian Tony Judt, was educated at Cambridge and Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris and taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley, and New York University.
The fascination of the book to me emanated from a unique and gratifying combination of English pragmatism and continental intellectualism possibly reflecting his educational experience. His writing style is graceful, elegant, imbued with ethos and public morality, vivid, witty, succinct, and possesses strong presence, individuality, and originality.
In the book parade essays of childhood memories, houses and Swiss Chalets, Food, cars, bus lines, railways, schools and teachers, University experiences in England and France, his disillusionment from a foray into a Kibbutz,his encounter with the New World and with East European intellectuals.
Early in the book and the essay on 'Austerity' we are intimated with the poverty prevailing in the early years post World War II which was well tolerated by the population because they were equitably deprived and were privileged by the morality of the political leadeship. But I am tempted to cite the relevant passage in the book for the reader to appreciate what exactly the cover of the book means when it states that 'each essay charts some experience or remembrance of the past through the sieve of Tony Judt's prodigious mind.'
'Looking back from our present vantage point, one sees more clearly the virtues of that bare-bones age. No one would welcome its return. But austerity was not just an economic condition:it aspired to a public ethic. Clement Attlee, the labour prime minister, from 1945 to 1951, had emerged - like Harry Truman - from the shadow of a charismatic leader and embodied the reduced expectations of the age.
Churchill mockingly described him as a modest man 'who has much to be modest about.' But it was Attlee who presided over the greatest age of reform in modern British history...he lived and died parsimoniously - reaping scant benefit from a lifetime public service. Attlee was an exemplary of the great age of middle-class Edwardian reforms:morally serious and a trifle austere. Who among our present leaders could make such a claim - or even understand it?
Moral seriousness in public life is like pornography:hard to define but you know it when you see it. It describes a coherence of intention and action, an ethic of political responsibility. All politics is the art of the possible. But art too has its ethic. If politicians were painters, with FDR as Titian and Churchill as Rubens, then Attlee would be the Vermeer of the profession:precise, restrained - and long undervalued. Bill Clinton might aspire to the heights of Savador Dali (and believe himself complimented by the comparison), Tony Blair to the standing - and cupidity - of Damien Hirst.'
I could cite very many gem like passages like the above but there are space constraints in a review, additionally I do not wish to deprive the prospective reader the originality of the experience.
I can only echo the other reviews here to affirm that this is a marvellous memoir. As you probably already know, the late Tony Judt dictated this memoir in the grip of the terminal stages of a ghastly neurological disease that left his mind lucid but trapped in a husk of a body.
The end result is not an autobiography structured around a timeline from youth to an enfeebled late middle age. Instead the memoir is structured around a series of vignettes organised by theme - a mixture of personal subjects like `food', `cars', `trains' to more political subjects like `revolutionaries', `meritocrats' and `captive minds' (a reference to the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz's eponymous book, detailing the fascination of intellectuals with authoritarian ideologies). The book is free of score settling and recrimination. Judt refrains detailing of squalid feuds with ex-wives or colleagues or digging the dirt on anyone but offers us a distillation of wisdom of an intellectual who experienced first hand the events he chronicled in his magnificent Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
We get a sense of what it was like to grow up in post-war austerity England, to be son of a lower middle class secular Jewish immigrant attending Oxbridge on the cusp of the so-called sexual revolution which was not everything it was cracked up to be (Judt was not only the first of his family to go to university but the first to complete secondary education). Chapters reflecting on the food shared around the table and trips on now defunct Green Line buses evoke a vivid sense of England in transition from grey post war years to Harold Macmillan's exultant `You have never had it so good' (he was right).
A stint on a kibbutz disabuses him of the attractions of collectivism - not just the nominally socialist Zionist variety. Later years sees him make a move to the United States, noting that New York is comparable to the great cosmopolitan metropolises of pre World War One Europe such as Salonica. There is no idealization here, just that this New World city with its miscellany of ethnic groups, coexisting even if they do not necessarily like, or know very much, about one another, is something to be admired. He shares his thoughts on topics as wide as sexual politics on American campuses in the 1990s and on intellectual dissidents in the moribund communist states of the 1980s.
Judt by political persuasion was a social democrat, in the sense that he believed that the state could act to secure the common good. He was scornful of Marxist utopian alternatives. One of his intellectual heroes was the cool, pragmatic and logical Raymond Aron (an empirical French, continental intellectual: a rare bird indeed). On the other hand, he was unashamedly a meritocrat, and believed that achievement counted more than effort. Despite this, he had no truck with the dominant ideological hegemony of Reagan-Thatcher strand of liberalism, and was sceptical of the benign consequences of globalisation, anticipating a time of troubles in the decades to come. I disagree with his pessimistic assessment but that doesn't matter. This was a man who did not belong to any movement or academic fashion. He held his own counsel and didn't toe any party line.
As mentioned this is a memoir that refrains from any kiss-and-tell stories, or to take one last swipe at those who have wronged him. He grinds no axes. This book is very opposite of solipsistic self-absorbed celebrity memoir. It is a poignant, astute compilation of some of the final reflections of a first rate mind, written with great dignity and literary flair, a wonderful memoir that deserves to become a classic.
on 21 December 2011
It turns out that I had a lot in common with Tony Judt. Born in 1948; grammar school education, followed by Oxbridge in 1966; mid-life crisis; life-long interest in history; but there the similarities end. He was Jewish, much-married and a professional historian, and he eventually took American citizenship. In some respects he resembled Christopher Hitchens more - both lived in the USA, and travelled a long way from their revolutionary origins; and both have died this year, Judt from motor neurone disease, Hitchens from cancer. Both were men of ideas, indeed 'public intellectuals', though their ideas about George Bush, 9/11 and the Iraq War were poles apart.
'The Memory Chalet' is like a hymn, written in praise of memory. Judt writes brilliantly about his youthful idealisms and misconceptions; about Zionism and the kibbutzniks he knew as a teenager; about Cambridge and Paris in 1968; about French intellectuals; Switzerland; the United States and much else. My favourite story is the one about the Maoist whom he met in Paris around 1970. The Maoist said he was in favour of burning down the college library. Judt suggested it was better to wait, in case one changed one's mind. The Maoist said that was 'a very British conclusion.'
He remained a man 'of the Left'; but one might wonder why, when he so obviously thought that the abolition of the grammar schools had been a big mistake; cherished many values which his younger students found distinctly old fashioned; and clearly loved America. Not everything one reads in the 'Daily Telegraph' is necessarily wrong; and not everything that Tony Blair did was necessarily wrong either. Judt was very broad minded in maturity; but I wonder if he did not retain some of his youthful antipathy to all things Conservative and conservative.
Judt sounds like a very likeable man (though the two failed marriages might make one wonder about whether everyone thought so). The ending is sad; but at the same time uplifiting.
on 10 March 2011
Two references in reviews -the assertion of post-war prosperity, and the suggestion of "Proustian" associations of memory- prompted me to buy this book, which I immediately re-read. Tony Judt was a clearly very well-and variedly- travelled man who had a finely developed sensitivity to the surroundings in which he found himself,which made lasting and mind-broadening impressions upon him which he skillfully transposes into his essays. In this he he has demonstrated an ability to bring to the reader's attention an insight into some experiences which might easily be overlooked as being merely mundane, all the more admirable for being completed in the light of his disability, which he refers to with feeling but without self-pity. Altogether quite instructive in showing how life can be experienced-- and enjoyed.
on 15 August 2011
One cannot dissociate this small masterpiece from the very particular process by which it has been created: the author alone in his bed, paralysed by his illness but with a lively spirit composed these texts. In 2008 the eminent historian Tony Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disorder whereby the patient gradually loses control of all his bodily functions but leaves the mind clear, a `progressive imprisonment without parole'.
These texts were never intended for publication, but were the result of Judts intellectual diversions simply to get him through the night: alone, completely immobile, as a `modern day mummy', in his `corporeal prison' Judt composed these short texts mainly motivated to ward off some bodily discomfort. Devoid of the possibility to write down these texts, by mnemonic means (his `memory chalet') he memorised these texts before they could be put to paper by him dictating it during the day to his assistant.
Due to this very particular creation process, the end result is a collection of texts which describe without pathos, very finely worded and with quite some humour some very down to earth subjects linked to his personal experiences: e.g. his father's enthusiasm for cars which Judt interprets as a way to escape an unhappy marriage and humiliating work, his youthful fascination and experience with kibbutz-life which resulted in an early suspiciousness for ideologies such as Maoism, gauchism, tiers-mondism... The strict, politically completely incorrect German teacher Joe, who efficiently taught Judt in a short time span to master this difficult language.
The diverse subjects always lead to very straightforward observations accompanied by intelligent analysis.
I was impressed by the extremely well-chosen wordings to describe by definition very ordinary things and this with humour. These texts are written by someone who has come to terms with his terrible ordeal, illustrated by the benign, positive look on things passed not excluding well-founded criticism. As Judt expresses it himself, these texts are written by a person who knows that `being' is the only thing left to him, he will not experience new things.
The texts for this book were finished in May 2010, Tony Judt died in August 2010.
on 14 April 2011
Tony Judt , the Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University, and Director of NYU's Erich Maria Remarque Institute ,the controversial essayist, passed away August 2010.He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terrible disease that leaves you totally paralysed. But before Judt reached this stage, while he lied still in bed during these slepless nights he imagined a series of essays that he dictated in the morning.You can only bow in respect and admiration for someone who fought his illness with this strength and courage.
The book reviewed is the collection of these essays, it was published posthumously.
The title is inspired by the medieval theory of memory that teaches one how to remember things, facts and people by positioning them in the chambers of a palace and then retrieving them later. The palace of Judt is a chalet in Switzerland where he used, as a child ,to spend vacations with his family.
The essays follow a chronological path, and are autobiographical to a great extent. They relate the experiences of Judt in various periods of his life.
I can say, after finishing reading, that I have learned many lessons of wisdom from this book. Judt has a formidable mind, an intellectual maturity seldom met in thinkers of our time, and a profound sense of the complexity of the human soul. He was able to see through the "isms" at a very early age when he tasted zionism and went to work in a kibbutz , and from his twenties until he died he fiercely stood against all and every dogmatism, fanaticism and half measures. It was not easy for him as a jew to stand in the face of Israel and defend justice for the Palestinians, many before him, and after him ( Goldstone for example) lost this battle and crumbled under the pressure, but not him.
He understood from the beginning what it meant to be a marginal to live on "the edge". But at the same time, and this is where the challenge lies, not to renounce one's origins.
A splendid read. A book to cherish, to visit and revisit.
Ceza Kassem ( writer and critic,PhD in Comparative Literature).
on 9 April 2014
I have always liked Tony Judt's work. It is full of insight, humour and hope. How he managed to do this whilst suffering so acutely is beyond belief. For someone brought up in the London of the 1950s this is a compulsive read. Though a man of the liberal left, he in no way spares his own from serious criticism, especially in his field of education. Recommended for anyone who loves well written English and acute insight into what it is to be human.