The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt, William Heinemann RRP£16.99, 226 pages
In the final months of his life, the historian Tony Judt lay awake at night trapped inside his own prison cell, a prisoner of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was paralysed from the neck down; his mind, however, remained as agile as ever. To keep himself sane during the long, sleepless hours, he would “scroll through” his life, sorting “my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, mis-memories and the like”, and reordering them into “feuilletons”, or “little leaves”.
To keep them in order – he was unable to write anything down – he used a mental “storage device”: the memory chalet. This was a modest wooden house in the Swiss town of Chesières, where he and his parents had spent a winter holiday in the 1950s, and which Judt mentally recreated.
Whenever he began to construct a narrative, he stored each of its elements in a part of the chalet – the bar, say, or the cuckoo clock or dining room. Sometimes the system let him down. But on other nights, “the faces return, the examples fit, the sepia photographs come back to life, ‘all connects’ and within a few minutes I have my story, my characters, illustrations, and morale”.
When Judt died just over three months ago, many of his feuilletons, dictated to his colleague Eugene Rusyn, had already been published in The New York Review of Books. 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: born to Jewish hairdressers in London’s East End, he spent his teenage summers on a kibbutz, worked as an army interpreter on the Golan Heights, on the borders of Israel and Syria; in 1967, he won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge; he studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and eventually became a distinguished historian of modern France.
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: the smog, for example, “a dense yellow haze” so thick that he used to lean out of the family car window, “instructing my father on his distance from the curb”; or the food: “boiled meat, boiled greens, and, very occasionally, fried versions of same”. He captures too the excitement and adventure of car journeys in the early 1950s.
This is not, though, merely the nostalgia of an academic exile for his idealised youth. Cured of political utopianism by his experiences in Israel, where he found kibbutz life narrow, stifling and parochial, Judt, nevertheless, remained a staunch social democrat, with Attlee’s Britain representing something close to an ideal. His contempt for modern Britain – “heritage Britain”, as he calls it – is obvious and perhaps a bit overstated; there is more, surely, to British national life than shoddily privatised railways and tawdry theme parks. More interesting, though, is his palpable uneasiness about the moral and cultural changes spawned by the 1960s.
One of the most acute essays is devoted to the institution of the Cambridge “bedder”, the woman who cleans a student’s room. One day in the late 1970s, when Judt was serving as associate dean of King’s, he had a complaint from a bedder who had seen a group of students “cavorting naked on the college lawns early one morning”. To them, her outrage seemed laughable; unlike the patronising “young gentlemen of the old sort”, who would have apologised with a rueful smile, they insisted that she was their equal and must behave as such. Their moral liberalism, Judt realised, had no room for “obligations of politeness and consideration”; the bedder’s old-fashioned values, they thought, must be swept away.
Sometimes, in fact, Judt can sound remarkably conservative. He writes admiringly about Joe, his German teacher at school, who relied on outright fear to hammer the language into his pupils, yet is properly withering about modern educational fashion, with its terror of meritocracy, elitism and competitiveness.
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.
In his final, unbearably poignant lines, he conjures up a beloved view in the Swiss mountain village of Mürren, for him “the happiest place in the world”. “We cannot choose where we start out in life,” he writes, “but we may finish where we will.” That he finished with such a wonderfully moving book is a mark of the man.
Dominic Sandbrook is the author of ‘State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974’ (Allen Lane)