The Memory Chalet

By Tony Judt
William Heinemann, 2010

Memory ChaletThe death of the historian and essayist Tony Judt in August 2010 attracted a great deal of media attention. Much of it was dedicated to his journalistic writings on Israel, including the first three paragraphs of the obituary in The Daily Telegraph, five paragraphs in the obituary in the New York Times and three paragraphs in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s piece on Judt in The Guardian. Most extraordinary of all, the BBC News website dedicated almost its entire news story about his death to his views on Israel.

This is simply bizarre and distorts Judt’s achievements as one of the outstanding historians of his generation. It is true that Judt wrote a series of polemical articles about Israel, mostly for The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The Nation and The New York Times and that these did receive widespread media coverage, especially in the States. However, most of these articles were written over just four years, between 2002-06, with a couple more op-ed pieces for The New York Times in the last year of his life. These coincided with a series of polemical (and equally fashionable) articles attacking Bush’s foreign policy, especially the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq. But this was only a tiny period of Judt’s career. It was hardly the main focus of his work even at the time, when he was completing his most famous book, Postwar (2005) and writing several important essays on social democracy and modern European memory. And without being particularly disrespectful to Judt, his writings on Israel were hardly very original or interesting, and pale beside the importance of the rest of his writings in recent years.That they caused such a stir reflects more on the strange state of the Anglo-American Left than it does on Judt’s career.

Now that the dust is settling, a few months after his death, it is possible to see his legacy more clearly. Several interesting essays, especially in The New York Review of Books, including an outstanding tribute by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the recent Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, have redirected our attention to Judt’s work as a historian. Now we have a new book of essays, The Memory Chalet, which remind us of his range, his central passions, and his outstanding qualities as an essayist and intellectual.


The Memory Chalet consists of twenty-five short essays, twenty-one of which appeared in The New York Review of Books during the first months of 2010. They were written when Judt was already desperately ill, suffering from a motor neuron disorder known as ALS that first deprived Judt of the use of his limbs, rendering him ‘effectively quadriplegic’. In an essay called ‘Night’, Judt describes with terrifying detail how he had become effectively imprisoned in a body which he could no longer control:

‘Having no use of my arms, I cannot scratch an itch, adjust my spectacles, remove food particles from my teeth, or anything else that … we all do dozens of times a day.’

His incapacity is at its worst at night as he lies ‘trussed,myopic, and motionless…alone in my corporeal prison…’ Under these circumstances, Judt composed his passionate defence of social democracy, Ill Fares the Land (2010), the essays in this book, and engaged in a dialogue with Timothy Snyder about the history of Europe in the twentieth century, to be published in the near future. It is an extraordinary achievement.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece is the title essay, ‘The Memory Chalet’, which opens the book. First, Judt describes how he composed these essays, lying awake at night, trying to remember each piece in turn, unable to write or even dictate, ‘condemned to long hours of silent immobility.’ He would construct a place in his head—the memory chalet itself, based on memories of a place he remembered from childhood skiing trips—and would arrange his ‘thoughts spatially in order to be able to retrieve them a few hours later’, assigning to each room, and to each part of each room,‘a staging point in a narrative, say, or perhaps an illustrative example’, which would trigger memories the next day, reminding him of how the next essay would unfold, detail by detail, stage by stage.

This is a fascinating account of training one’s memory, but the details, too, are revealing. ‘The Memory Chalet’ starts in Switzerland, on a winter holiday ‘in 1957 or ‘58’. It starts, as does Postwar, in the heart of Europe, not his native England or New York, where Judt spent his most successful years, and in the late 1950s, the heyday of the economic miracle of post-war Europe—a time of boom, but also of west European social democracy. Many of the essays are a tribute to this historical moment, to the virtues of social justice, growing equality and prosperity. Essays about growing up in 1950s Putney, about his school, the Green Line buses and trains he travelled on, turn out to be not just Proustian evocations of a lost childhood in suburban London, but a political statement, recalling a lost social and political world.

In ‘Joe’, Judt describes his time at Emanuel School in Battersea (1959-65): ‘Most boys at Emanuel came from the south London lower middle class [like Judt, whose parents worked in a hairdressing shop in Putney], with a small number of working-class boys who had done well at the 11+ and a smattering of sons of stockbrokers, bankers, etc. from the outer suburbs…’From here he went on to King’s College,Cambridge, where he studied history.‘My King’s,’ he writes,‘was the very incarnation of meritocratic postwar Britain.’ Most of his contemporaries,‘more than any group before or since’,‘opted for education, public service, the higher reaches of journalism, the arts, and the unprofitable end of the liberal professions.’

It is hard to miss the elegiac glow in these essays. It is not simply nostalgia for a bygone age. It is about a particular time, a world that we have lost. At the end of his life, in Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, Judt laments the passing of a public sphere of transport and education and high streets with thriving small businesses‘just before the fall’.The essay,‘The Green Line Bus’, beautifully evokes the joys of public transport: ‘Catching the Green Line thus felt good, a comfort and a security against the chill London night and a promise of safe, warm transport home.’ And then, as in all these essays, comes the sense of decline and loss: ‘Like so much else in Britain today, the Green Line buses merely denote, like a crumbling boundary stone, overgrown and neglected, a past whose purposes and shared experiences are all but lost in Heritage Britain.’

The Fall came in the 1980s, with Thatcherism, then Blair and Brown. Here, as in some of the more polemical essays in his previous book of essays, Reapparaisals (2008), you can feel the anger against the destruction of the public sphere in the names of privatization (Thatcher) and globalisation (New Labour). The language of post-war social democracy (‘carefully    contained’, ‘reassuring’, ‘a    comfort    and    a    security’) gives way to the harsh new world of corporate capitalism and consumerism. An essay on the cross-channel ferry, for example, takes us from the old Lord Warden, ‘a substantial vessel’, which crossed the Channel through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s (retiring, symbolically, in 1979, the year Thatcher was elected) to a new world of ‘giant hypermarches’, ‘ubiquitous malls’ and ‘down-market consumption’.

What Judt misses out, of course, is the dark side of the post-war period: its intolerance and prejudices, its lack of diversity and choice in everyday life, the homophobia and racism. In the essay on his schooldays, there is just a passing reference    to ‘the    endemic    anti-Semitism’ at    his    school. Similarly, he misses out the gains in the last thirty years. Growing prosperity for many, new forms of tolerance, the comfort of everyday life in centrally-heated homes with indoor toilets and washing machines. Many of these gains were experienced by women and this is very much a man’s view of the past, similar in tone to the TV plays of Jack Rosenthal or the world of Alan Bennett.These are curious omissions in the work of a leading social historian, whose masterwork, Postwar (2005), showed such a keen eye for just such changes.

This is partly because of Judt’s increasingly angry view of changes in Britain from the 1980s.But it is also to do with Judt’s sense of roots and community. As a teenager he was immersed in ‘an all-embracing engagement with left-wing Zionism.’ His parents were descended from east European Jews: his mother’s parents came from Russia and his Belgian father was descended from a line of Lithuanian rabbis. All his grandparents were Yiddish-speaking Jews from east Europe and Judt was brought up in a part-Jewish, part-assimilated home. ‘From the age of 15 until 19 or 20, I was a gung-ho, utterly committed, leftwing Zionist…’ During the late Sixties he moved away from Zionism and Marxism. As he writes in an essay called ‘Kibbutz’, ‘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.’
He was inoculated for life against the fashionable ‘isms and ‘ologies which seized academic life in the 1970s and ‘80s. From then on,he became a solidly empirical historian and an admirer of a canon of anti-Communist central European intellectuals which included Koestler,Milosz and Kolakowski.The essay here on Milosz, ‘Captive Minds’, is typically clear and sane. He puts Milosz in a precise historical context, providing background
on the key figures in the writer’s book ‘The Captive Mind,’ and then explains why his students seem baffled by some of its central arguments, in particular the notion of ideological self- delusion. This all requires considerable erudition, but is done with a light touch.

Judt’s essay on Paris intellectuals in the 1960s and ‘70s, ‘Paris was Yesterday’, is equally typical in its caustic dismissal of empty academic theory. When most of his British and American academic contemporaries in the humanities looked to French theory, Judt looked further east. Again, to central Europe, but this time to Prague and Warsaw. He learned Czech and immersed himself in modern central European history. One of the distinguishing achievements of Postwar was his realization that Europe did not stop at the German-Polish border. He describes ‘the determination with which I set out to integrate Europe’s two halves into a common story.’ Like many of the best modern European historians—Snyder, Norman Davies, Mark Mazower– Judt understood that eastern Europe existed too.

In the mid-1990s Judt moved to New York, where he founded the Remarque Institute at NYU and emerged as a famous public intellectual and historian. Curiously, the further he moved from Europe, the closer he engaged with the central problems of modern European history and memory. Moving to America and discovering eastern Europe—his two newfound lands—allowed Judt to branch out from French history, the subject of his early career and first books, to become one of the pre-eminent historians of Europe.

The Memory Chalet
is a book of two halves. One group of essays evokes the lost world of post-war Britain, while the other details how he embraced a cosmopolitan life in New York, giving up on Zionism, Marxism and French theory and keeping one eye always open to the history and ideas of central and east Europe. This perhaps explains a chain of images that run through the book, images of solitude and isolation. The solitude of the desperately ill, of course, unable to move, barely able to communicate, completely abandoned at night, but also recalling his early life as ‘a solitary child’, taking ‘tube trips around London from a very young age’, a ‘lone traveller’. Also the solitude of the deracinated intellectual, who had broken away from the fashionable orthodoxies and collective allegiances of his time. Judt’s recent essays follow his attempt to find his own canon, his own way and, perhaps most critically, his own voice.

This is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of The Memory Chalet. These essays, he writes, ‘are unlike anything I have written before.’They have ‘an essentially impressionistic effect’, interweaving the private and the public,‘the reasoned and the intuited, the recalled and the felt.’‘I don’t know what sort of a genre this is,’ he goes on. But they are, he feels, a clue to a more personal story.‘I am struck by the man I never became.’

This is why it is such an injustice to pigeonhole Judt as a loud polemicist against Israel or Bush. He was so much more than this. A great historian, one of the best of the post-war period. A fascinating essayist, at his best on the peripheries of modern Europe and central Europe’s great mid-20th-century intellectuals. And someone who moved towards a new voice, crossing between intellectual, social and personal history, from Milosz and Camus to French national memory and the decline of social democracy and ending with what was remembered by a man, confined to his bed and his thoughts, trying to remember all that mattered in his life.

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