The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt

I chose this book because the owner of our local bookshop recommended it.

That is not in itself a good reason for selecting a book for the Book reading club. A book can be produced under tragic circumstances and still not be worthy of attention. We can sympathise with someone who has written the book under stress – perhaps because their child has been kidnapped, their lover massacred or their parents blown up or whatever – but if the writing technique is poor and the subject matter badly presented, we may admire the man because he managed to write the book at all, but that doesn’t make the book in itself admirable. We’d say; Yes, interesting . . . but we wouldn’t recommend it to others.

However; I am recommending this book, even though I never expected to find myself getting worked up over a book of memoirs – or essays as perhaps these ought to be termed. In fact, I don’t remember reading a book of essays since I was at school and became interested in how well someone could put across an idea in a few short pages. One particular essay – about the origins of Roast Pork, has lingered in my mind for years, popping up now and then to make me smile. Was it Hazlitt, or Leigh Hunt? Perhaps it was Lamb? Yes; lamb and pork. It must be Lamb. It was written in the heyday of the l8th century period when men of letters had the leisure to hone their skills in such matters.

I was recently asked to suggest some books of memoirs to an American student in her last semester at college. I came up with Pepys, the Duc de St Simon – and Tony Judt.

Does Tony Judt bear comparison with the others? Well, not on the basis of The Memory Chalet, for Pepys and St Simon witnessed events of national and international importance, which you could say changed the face of Europe. Pepys recorded the changing fortunes of the house of Stewart after the Commonwealth broke down and was largely responsible for the transformation of the British Navy. St Simon recorded events at Versailles in the last years of the Ancien Regime before the French Revolution. Neither Pepys nor St Simon set out to be historians, although both are consulted by historians today. Both wrote in cipher to protect their privacy, and I’m sure both would be amazed to hear their writings are still highly regarded today.

Can the Memory Chalet be compared to them? Well, no. But Tony Judt’s other works can. The Memory Chalet is a postscript to his life and times, but the fruit of his life’s work can definitely be placed alongside the work of other great historians.

Tony Judt actually did set out to be a historian and became one – possibly one of the most influential of the last century, as you can see from his seminal work titled: Postwar: A History of Europe since l945, and a baker’s dozen other books of similar towering stature. All of which are really above my head. I did make a start on the Post War book and found I had to stop every few paragraphs to consider whether or not I had understood what he’d just written, and then ask myself if I agreed with it.

I found the experience salutary but didn’t continue with it for very long. Which of course is a fault in me and not in him. I’m afraid I find it tiresome to read books by someone who uses longer words than I know. I hate looking words up in the dictionary! And yes, I know that’s a fault in me. Pride or something. But I had to look up ‘solipsism’ on Wikipedia because my dictionary didn’t have it.

Returning to the circumstances in which the book was written, and which affected my bookseller friend so much. Tony Judt came from a mixed East European Jewish background – he was actually named after an aunt who later perished in Auschwitz – was clever enough and worked hard enough to get into a good school, proceeded to King’s College, Cambridge, proceeding from there to the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. He taught at Cambridge, Oxford and Berkeley. He eventually ended up as the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York university; also the Director of the Remarque Institute, which is dedicated to the study of Europe, and which he founded in l995.

He was the author or editor of fourteen books, and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Republic, the New York Times and many other journals in Europe and the USA. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize – among others.

Along the way he married three times, and was still married to his third wife – and had sired a couple of children – by the time he was sixty and diagnosed with a form of motor neurone disease which gradually and inevitably robbed him of all his functions and ended with his death in August 2010.

During that last and final period of his life, like Stephen Hawkings, he refused to shut himself up in a sick room, feeling sorry for himself – although of course there were times when he wanted to scream with frustration and fury. He never stopped thinking about things, and for a long time he was able to pass on to us the result of his musings.

In the dead watches of the night, unable to move any part of his physical body, his mind seized on the idea of scrolling through his life, his thoughts, fantasies, memories, in order to divert his mind from what was happening to him. Often we think of something in the night and want to remember it, only to find when we’ve woken the next morning, that that bright and memorable idea has flown away. Tony Judt learned to fix these ideas in his mind by a trick; he revisited an unfashionable holiday inn the family had used when he was child, thought through a particular memory, arranged the words in his mind, and placed the whole mentally in a room in the chalet.

He says that ‘nostalgia makes a very satisfactory second home’. I cannot pretend to understand exactly how his system worked, but work for him it certainly did, since the next morning he was able to recapture his thoughts and dictate them to an amanuensis. He did not intend publication at first, but when he mentioned what he was doing to his agent and publisher, they encouraged him to continue – hence the present book, which came out in 2011 to rave reviews. One review says that his dying words make the connection between memory and society – and I think that’s a wonderful epitaph.

It’s not a very long book, comprising a preface and 23 essays, but it is dense, sometimes amusing, always well written, and often thought-provoking. Here is a trained mind, looking back on an eventful life, and drawing certain conclusions from it. You may or may not always agree with his conclusions, but that’s your privilege and he would be the first to agree that you were entitled to it.

The essays are given in chronological order, starting with his family and childhood. He observes that the key word for the years immediately after WW11 was Austerity, not poverty. Which is a good point. I’ll pick up some of his good points to quote as we go along. He remarked that Attlee – whom he terms ‘morally serious and a trifle austere’ – presided over the greatest age of reform in modern British history, as an exemplary representative of the great age of middle-class Edwardian reformers; morally serious and a trifle austere. He compares the politicians we have suffered from since, and the way society has gone consumer-mad, with all the loss of ethical standards that that entails. (He even includes a side-swipe at Obama here)

At the end of this first essay, I noted a little trick he uses. Like many good journalists, in his last sentence he sums up what he’s just said, and as he does so, he refers back to his start. So for this essay his final words are that . . . today, a little austerity might be in order.

His reflections on food are, as you might expect, considered with his mixed Jewish heritage in contrast to the Indian restaurant revolution which he learned to embrace. Perhaps it’s a comment on his polyglot ancestry and upbringing that he says that we are what we eat, and that consequently, he’s very English. Cars don’t excite him as they excited his father, but looking back on his childhood’s days when they lived in Putney, he laments that it is now a featureless replica of every high street in England from its fast food outlets to its mobile phone stores.

He had something of a love affair with the Green Line bus that once criss-crossed London – perhaps something of the same nostalgia that we now feel for the old Routemaster buses; it will be interesting to see if they come to have the same place in our memories in the future. Similarly, he records his love of travel by train – particularly on the Continent, and deplores the lack of British investment in our network. He laments not just the end of the journeys he used to take, but of the very ‘loss of himself – or at least, that better part of myself that most readily found contentment and peace. No more Waterloo, no more country halts, no more solitude; no more becoming, just interminable being.’

From food and travel to school. As the essays continued, I found him becoming sharper in his comments. From the perspective of his death-bed, he can make pronouncements upon the way society has developed which may displease some people, but which put into words what many of us have come to feel. A bright boy who thought for himself, and a Jew, he was bound to stand out from his contemporaries and become something of a loner, and it was his good fortune that he managed to acquire enough good schooling by old-fashioned tough measures, to get into King’s College in Cambridge. On which he comments that his old and successful teachers would never be allowed to preside in a classroom today. He says, ‘Being well taught is the only thing worth remembering from school’.

Perhaps reacting from slurs on his Jewishness at school, he went all out for Zion and lived in a kibbutz, immersing himself in ‘Muscular Judaism’. Heady stuff for a fifteen year old. But once he was accepted at Cambridge, and observed first hand what the Jews intended for the Arabs, he dropped out. ‘By the time I went up to Cambridge I had actually experienced – and led – an ideological movement of the kind most of my contemporaries only ever encountered in theory. I knew what it meant to be a ‘believer’ but I also knew what price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance’.

The chapter on Work I think should have come here, but actually is placed later in the book. I liked his attitude; it echoed my own experience and that of my daughter’s. You got out and took whatever jobs you could get and you didn’t moan about being worth more than the minimum wage. So he worked in shops, and as a short order cook; he signed on to work a passage in the engine room of a ship; he took guided tours around London, worked in a brickyard, and concluded that that sort of work was not ennobling; that some jobs gave you time to think constructive thoughts, while others were to be avoided at all costs.

His thoughts on education are I suppose what most people, however reluctantly, are driven to; that curbing the elitist inheritance of the private schools and institutionalizing ‘equality’ only serves to make the gap between private and state schools the wider, and it fails. He is right; ‘equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing.’

So to Cambridge and into the social upheaval where King’s students were at the forefront. Although the old traditions and the old tutors were still alive, the rules of behaviour for students were flouted and relaxed, upsetting the social structures upon which the college had been run from time immemorial. From Kings to the Ecole Normale Superieure, where he encountered a type of French thinking which illuminates something of the age-old divide between Anglo-Saxon England and Celtic France. The structured thinking of the brilliant French students would not – perhaps can not – allow them to consider something beyond their experience. He illustrates this with an anecdote as follows:

‘A top engineer was sent by his king in l830 to observe the trials of George Stephenson’s Rocket on the newly opened Manchester-Liverpool railway line. The Frenchman sat by the track taking copious notes as the sturdy little engine faultlessly pulled the world’s first railway train back and forth between the two cities. After conscientiously calculating what he had just observed, he reported his finds back to Paris; ‘The thing is impossible,’ he wrote. ‘It cannot work.’ Now there, Tony Judt says, was a French intellectual.

He played a little at being a revolutionary in England, not understanding what the term really meant till later when news of what happened in Prague, and Warsaw filtered through to the outside world.

Bored with life, he learned Czech which led to his ever-enquiring mind delving into the problems of post war Europe. Journeys by road across America caused him to think more about the American way of life, especially in its amazing universities. . . and eventually to his moving there while still retaining his links with England . . . and finally his acceptance of the fact that he had become an American – and he married for the third time, in New York.

When I’d been through this book a couple of times, marking pages that I wanted to return to, I put it down thinking that I’d missed something. Somewhere there’d been a flight of fancy which had tickled my imagination. Not an anecdote – I had marked and copied out the ones I wanted to keep. It wasn’t a social comment; I had plenty of those to choose from. No, it was a sort of verbal cartoon. And then I found it again.

‘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 Salvador Dali (and believe himself complimented by the comparison), Tony Blair to the standing – and cupidity – of Damien Hirst.’

I really liked that.

True to his habit of ending each essay with a reference back to the beginning of it, on the last page of this book he returns to the place in which he’d set it – to a small Swiss village fed by a pocket railway. He writes, ‘Nothing happens there; it is the happiest place in the world. We cannot chose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be; going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.’

I’m pretty sure he knew that that, too, was an illusion . . . but I hope that his wish came true.

Veronica Heley

After I’d finished my review, I learned that while Judt had been working on The Memory Chalet, he’d also been collaborating with a fellow historian on a book covering roughly the same period of time, but I haven’t had time to read it yet. For those interested, it’s called ‘Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Pub by William Heinemann.


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