November 2010

Looking back on a life

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The new collection of essays by historian Tony Judt looks back on a life well and enjoyably lived—and one that was rapidly coming to a close. In 2008, Judt was diagnosed with ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease—a condition that rapidly reduced him to a quadriplegic. Unable to write down his thoughts for these final essays (which he had to dictate), he resorted to a mnemonic device he named “the memory chalet,” a place in which he could store and retrieve his thoughts at will. The reference is to an actual chalet in Switzerland he remembered fondly from his childhood. Judt completed The Memory Chalet in May of this year and died in August.

Born in London in 1948 to lower middle-class Jewish parents, Judt was early inclined toward solitude and scholarship. One of his youthful passions, he writes, was riding the Green Line buses from one side of London to the other “just for the sheer pleasure of seeing woods, hills, and fields emerge at each end of my native metropolis.” He was similarly enthusiastic about riding trains. Judt was educated at Cambridge and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Although he was an ardent member of a leftist Zionist youth organization in the 1960s and worked summers on kibbutzim in Israel, he subsequently became a critic of Israel. “Before even turning twenty,” he declares, “I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.”

Judt would go on to teach history (a profession he began preparing for at the age of 12) at Cambridge and Oxford. He first came to America in 1975 to teach for a year at the University of California at Davis. He eventually settled permanently in the U.S. to continue the academic life at Berkeley and New York University.

Despite his stature as a “public intellectual,” Judt’s observations in this collection are more impressionistic than analytical. For the most part, he’s not arguing points but simply re-savoring the things that once pleased him, such as his comparatively lush life as a Cambridge undergraduate, the girls and music of the “Swinging Sixties,” his bracingly rigorous studies at the Ecole Normale and his drives across America. He even remembers the austere living conditions and the bad food of post-World War II Britain with surprising affection. Of his three marriages and two children, he says little. Nor does he dwell on friends or enemies he’s made. But he does pause to remark on what he considers “America’s three strongest assets”—Thomas Jefferson, Chuck Berry and the New York Review of Books.

Conceding that he can be stereotyped as English and/or Jewish, Judt spurns all the trappings of “identity” politics. “I prefer the edge,” he writes, “the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.”  This is a memorable collection from a memorable man.

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