Each essay in historian Tony Judt's memoir charts an experience or remembrance of the past through the sieve of his prodigious mind. His youthful love of a particular London bus route evolves into a reflection on public civility and interwar urban planning.
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.