Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Memory Chalet

The historian Tony Judt died last year of motor neurone disorder, aged 62. Author of the great history of post-1945 Europe, Postwar, the last years of his life saw a dramatic flowering of his writing for the general public, including two books now available in paperback - his impassioned polemic defending the role of the state in modern culture, Ill Fares the Land, and the more personal The Memory Chalet, a collection of autobiographical essays.

More personal, but certainly not completely: for Judt, nothing could be entirely personal. An essay like 'The Green Line Bus', which starts as a nostalgic piece on travelling to school as a boy in London, ends, contemplating the new changed bus system: "Like so much else in Britain today, the Green Line buses merely denote, like a crumbling boundary stone, overgrown and neglected, a past whose purposes and shared experiences are all but lost in Heritage Britain." This shares the ferocious anger of Ill Fares the Land, but it comes from an angle not available to us in any other book by Judt. As he states at the start, he did not intend these pieces for publication, instead "writing them for my own satisfaction". We can be thankful he did, because they give us rare access to a mind working under the terrible conditions of his devastating and terminal disease.

He addresses this disorder directly at several points in the book, most powerfully in the essay 'Night', in which he describes ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), and its combination of lack of pain and no loss of sensation, and drily observes: "in contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration."  What he is left to do at night is "to scroll through my life, my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, mis-memories, and the like until I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased." The scrolling takes us through old Citroen cars, 'bedders' at Cambridge, a cross-Channel ferry, kibbutzes and railway systems (the essay on trains, 'Mimetic Desire', is particularly good - not the only essay about travel by someone who could no longer move at all).

The result is, ironically, a pleasure, and far from depressing. A softer book than Ill Fares the Land (especially in his fondness for Switzerland, which provides the title), it is also deeply moving, with no sense of self-pity and much mordant humour. As Judt's body closed down, his mind seemed to become ever more alert and brilliant, and it is a privilege to be allowed to spend time with it.

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