Judt’s last meditations in the face of mortality
No reader can separate the contents of Tony Judt’s final book, “The Memory Chalet,’’ from its construction, and even so the author stands in the way. Imagine a 60-year-old historian of great prominence, read worldwide for his insights into postwar Europe, contemporary intellectuals, and (most controversially) Israel, who whether in person or by his pen has always been a formidable voice. Then imagine him over two years as gradually he loses the function of his body to Lou Gehrig’s disease so that, by the end (which came in August), these 25 brief recollections must be dictated in his final months and weeks by a voice that is failing him, too.
It is tragic and yet, even as Judt calmly and exactly delineates his predicament, there is no tragedy here; only the professed good fortune of a man who knows it could so easily have gone, numerous times, in other directions. Describing the boredom and loneliness of his immo bilized nights following immobilized days and losing words by the day, there is no space to waste on self-pity: “Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.’’
Judt tells us exactly what these last interior reflections will be: the memory of boyhood Swiss holidays, the immaculate wooden chalet in which his family stayed, the small train connecting valley and mountain “going nowhere in particular . . . forever and ever.’’ Judt has offered a pithy book of tiny narratives (most first appearing in the New York Review of Books) where nearly every sentence is an argument: about academia, intellectuals, class, public life, the ’60s, Jewishness, sex, and career or vocation.
The arguments cohere into a ringing defense of the nearly outdated ideology of social democracy (the subject of Judt’s “Ill Fares the Land’’) that never took well in this country, anyway; and a rueful apologia for the many faults and failures of Judt’s baby-boom generation who, whether in education, money, or opportunity (sexual or career) seem, by his accounting, to have inherited far more than they will bequeath.
More personally, the book is a meditation on the life path of a proclaimed “rootless cosmopolitan’’: a Londoner born to Eastern European immigrants who had fled Hitler’s Europe, who went to the very best schools and university for free, making his way from Cambridge to Oxford and finally to New York for the second half of his life, with long stops in Paris and Eastern Europe in between; not to mention a few cross-country drives across the United States. Always a brilliant student and superbly articulate in several languages, he reminds us that wherever he found himself, he was only one among many gifted people, and that serendipity “left me with a lasting insight into the precariousness of careers: everything might have been different.’’
This should not be taken as false modesty; no one could write a book like this without tremendous self-confidence in one’s intellect and power of argument. The blunt, dismissive side of the endless debater and critic has not dulled from its sharper edges just because of mortality’s approach — similar to what we admire now from Christopher Hitchens in his accounts of his probably fatal cancer. But in recalling such homely memories as the bus he used to take through London, or the ferry across the channel, or his father’s cars and grandmother’s cooking, Judt has made the final reckoning not just a “rhetorical landscape’’ but an intensely visualized one, and bracingly succinct besides.
And still to the end he is learning: “Reading over these feuilletons I suppose I am struck by the man I never became.’’ Judt is not the first memoirist to discover that the act of autobiography produces not just what one did or said, but also what didn’t happen; and here he regrets nothing.
Eric Weinberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.