These essays, which he couldn't write down for himself, are nevertheless wonderfully written. They capture his 1950s childhood in Putney, the dour, didactic direct grammar school that drove him on to Cambridge, his days of devotion and disillusion on a joyless kibbutz, his restless trek from one university and one country to another – and one wife to another – until New York finally came to seem like home. And Judt, start to finish, could never write a boring sentence ... Tony Judt, in short, was a mass of contradictions, a polemicist as well as a prophet, a philosopher as well as a pamphleteer; but, most of all, through these pages, he emerges as a wellspring of enlightenment you need to spend time with.
All but four of [these essays] were originally published as separate pieces in The New York Review, but their impact is much enhanced as a single book, a book that is at once memoir, self-portrait, and credo ... Judt expresses affection for the material world in which he grew up, but words, ideas, and human institutions are the real substance of his life ... The most complex feelings expressed in this memoir are about the Jews, Jewishness, and Israel ... But Judt’s dominant identification is with the values of Western liberalism in its social democratic form ... The magnificent and defiant gesture of writing this book in these circumstances is the fitting legacy of an extraordinary man who wanted us to know who he was.
The Memory Chalet is quite different from anything Judt ever wrote ... The style is as lapidary as ever, but strangely the mood is lighter than before ... Each of these beautifully crafted pieces presents a self-contained vignette. Together they form a picture of an age, seen through the prism of an extraordinary mind ... A truth-teller by nature, Judt never pretended that the illness that befell him was a hidden blessing ... But if tragedy cannot be redeemed it can sometimes be defied, as Judt confirms in this exquisitely graceful memoir of a happy life.
The Memory Chalet — most of which first appeared in The New York Review of Books — form a mosaic of autobiographical fragments and a restatement of views more or less familiar from his earlier, less personal writings ... With his own life drawing to a close Judt sees the era of social mobility, of which he was the beneficiary, and uncompromisingly high standards, of which he was the embodiment, coming to an end. The elegiac tone is more than simply personal: it’s a reminder that England, for all its failings, will never lose its capacity to generate lament ... With its vivid haze of detail, The Memory Chalet is the work of a historian forced to do without many of the tools on which he had placed the greatest reliance ... You can almost sense the soul of the historian leaving his body, leaving the still-living body of work behind.
Collected in this volume, they make a tremendously moving memorial to a first-class historian and essayist, moving from the streets of London in the threadbare Clement Attlee years to the dining rooms of New York in the 21st century. If nothing else, Judt led a compellingly colourful life ... Perhaps surprisingly, though, some of the most affecting passages in this book look back to Judt’s childhood, long before his academic fame and fortune. He writes beautifully about the moral and physical atmosphere of his London boyhood ... One of the most acute essays is devoted to the institution of the Cambridge 'bedder,' the woman who cleans a student’s room ... But this book is quintessential Judt: humane, fearless, unsparingly honest. In essay after essay the same qualities shine forth, all the more remarkable given the tragic circumstances.
Like all of Judt’s writing, The Memory Chalet insists upon the old-fashioned virtue of intellectual clarity. If politically Judt was a lifelong member of the left, culturally he was a conservative. In an American university setting he passed for a reactionary, with his open disdain for identity politics, theorizing and political correctness ... Judt’s book differs from most memoirs in a crucial way. Even the best of contemporary confessional writing...have little to offer in the way of wisdom beyond the usual one- day-at-a-time homilies of the recovery movement and the thin truths of the self ... By habit, Judt is driven to find in his own story something more significant than a story of private wounds, traumas and grievances. This may seem in our solipsistic age like a novel approach, but it is in fact an older one.
One of the glories of the essay form is that its elegant formality of structure is allied to an exhilarating flexibility of content. You can write a rigorously argued essay about absolutely anything. And that is what Judt does, following his mind wherever it takes him: the food of his English-Jewish childhood, the glories of the suburban Green Line bus routes, his outstanding German teacher, the social and political significance of the Cambridge bedder (as the college servants are known), his thoughts on education, on cars, on learning Czech in middle age, on captive minds, on sexual politics, on identity ... You would expect a memoir written in such circumstances to have an elegiac quality, but here there is no dying fall. The curiosity, intellectual fearlessness, relish for comic detail and crystalline prose are the marks of a man possessed not by death, but by life.
His 'memory chalet' is a modest version of the 'memory palaces' used by early modern thinkers and travellers to retain and recall detail and description. It is based on an unremarkable little pensione in an unremarkable little town in the Swiss Alps where Judt spent a winter holiday with his parents in the late 1950s. He describes how he would assign fragments of narrative to different parts of the building - to the bar, say, the dining room, or the bedrooms ... His unillusioned and unsentimental apprehension of his own imminent disappearance gives the book...a sort of pre-posthumous quality ... In examining his past, Judt has managed to write what amounts to a Bildungsroman of one of the most distinctive writerly personas of the age. At the same time, he has told us something important about ourselves: about what we were and what we have become.
Whether Judt was grateful for being left compos mentis cannot but be a moot point but given the breadth of knowledge and quality of thought bodied forth in The Memory Chalet his readers can have no such doubts ... We should all be thankful his brain kept working even as the disease did everything it could to deprive him of a world to work upon ... Anyone who wants to begin learning about what is going on in the Middle East or why Marxism failed could do a lot worse than start here ... Yet there is a lot more to The Memory Chalet than the political history that made Judt’s name.
It is easy to forget, reading this memoir, that Judt is reconstructing his past even as he lies immobilized in a hospital bed. All the pieces move: glittering, tingling chapters are rich in smells and sights and sounds and movement ... And then, in Parts Two and Three, Judt grows up. He goes to private school ('BBE,' Before the Beatles Era), where he encounters the expected anti-Semitism, then on to Cambridge, embraces Zionism, and spends large chunks of time on a kibbutz in Israel until the Six-Day War shatters his illusions ... It’s a vote for the savored life but also for the life of the mind — a well-stocked pantry should the unthinkable befall us.
People often talk about being thrown back solely on their own inner resources, but seldom can there have been a more stark, or a more true, example of such a phenomenon than Judt’s Memory Chalet. For such was his capacity for summoning up the interstices of his past in those nocturnal forensic journeys of the mind that he was able the next day to communicate them, and that is what we have, in all their glory, in these pages ... These recollections range widely from the intensely personal and autobiographical to social, cultural and political observations that remind the reader not only of the author’s intellect - that 'analytically disposed mind,' as he put it - but of his lifelong engagement with the great issues of his own time and the past that shaped it.