The Memory Chalet: born at the right time

In 2008, the historian Tony Judt learned he had ALS, a variant of motor neuron disease. He was at the pinnacle of his career, having completed Postwar, his epic and ground-breaking history of Europe since 1945, just three years earlier.  Now the disease that afflicted him meant that, although he was ‘effectively quadriplegic’, he was able, with ‘extraordinary effort’, to move his right hand a little and to lift his left arm about six inches.  He was in no pain and he could still express his thoughts precisely and acutely. But that was both a blessing and a curse, a ‘cockroach-like existence’ that bore down most heavily during the long nights unable to move a limb or scratch an itch, ‘entombed ‘like a modern-day mummy’, alone but for his thoughts.

Those night watches led Judt, each night, to set himself a challenge: drawing on the memory-tricks of the Jesuit missionary in 16th century Ming China,Matteo Ricci (documented in Jonathan Spence’s book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci), in his head Judt would draft an autobiographical vignette, recalling and reciting it to a friend the following day.  This is Judt in his own words, in the opening essay, ‘Night‘:

I suffer from a motor neuron disorder, in my case a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): Lou Gehrig’s disease. Motor neuron disorders are far from rare: Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of lesser diseases all come under that heading. What is distinctive about ALS—the least common of this family of neuro-muscular illnesses—is firstly that there is no loss of sensation (a mixed blessing) and secondly that there is no pain. 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.  In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole. [...]

I suppose I should be at least mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most normal people only read about in accounts of natural disasters or isolation cells. And it is true that this disease has its enabling dimension: thanks to my inability to take notes or prepare them, my memory—already quite good—has improved considerably, with the help of techniques adapted from the “memory palace” so intriguingly depicted by Jonathan Spence. But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. … My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.

These short essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books, and then, after Judt’s death in book form as The Memory Chalet, which I recently read. The book is both a collation of autobiographical fragments and a concise restatement of the ‘self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling, the … quality of awkwardness and dissent’ (Judt’s own words) that he became well-known for through his books and essays,such as those written for The New York Times.

In these essays Judt meanders through his past life, recalling childhood holidays in Switzerland with his parents. He remembers the chalet they stayed in, and every room, every cupboard becomes a location where a component of memory is stored. Through the long night watch he paces from room to room, reviewing and reinforcing the components of fragments of autobiography as he goes, ready for dictation to a friend who will write down his words the next day.

Judt recalls his childhood, growing up in the 1950s in Putney.  He remembers the food his lower-middle-class Jewish family ate;  the fearsome teacher whose old-fashioned rote learning methods nevertheless gave Judt the facility in German that opened his way to being a European historian, and which led to his learning Czech in middle age and expanding his scope to embrace the history of the eastern half of the continent. He recalls life as a student at King’s College, Cambridge, in the 1960s and summers spent, as an enthusiastic Zionist, on an Israeli kibbutz – describing, too, the process by which he shed his illusions about the state of Israel and the nature of Communism in Eastern Europe: ‘Before even turning 20 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 writes in an easy-going manner about ordinary, everyday matters, but in so doing he returns frequently to issues he has raised in previous books.  For example, in one piece Judt writes about how, as a schoolboy in the 1950s, he frequently rode the Green Line bus from the southwest London suburb of Putney across the city and as far as its northern extermity. Remembering its distinctive livery transports him back to the days before English bus services were privatised:

The conductor, paid a little less than the skilled driver, was usually but not always a younger man (there were hardly any women). His function was ostensibly to keep order and collect fares; but since large tracts of countryside were often covered with relatively few passengers and stops, his task was hardly preoccupying. In practice he kept the driver company. [Now] the conductors are long gone and the drivers, insulated from the interior . . . have no dealings with their customers beyond the purely commercial. [The Green Line is] owned and run by Arriva, the worst of the private companies now responsible for providing train and bus services to British commuters, at exorbitant prices.

The short essays proceed chronologically, and as they move into adulthood and Judt’s academic career they begin to focus on the issues and ideas that have defined the man. In ‘Midlife Crisis’, for example, he writes about the process that lead to his most important book, Postwar , his history of Europe since 1945, which integrated Europe’s two halves into a common story in a way that had not been done before.  It began with his own midlife crisis, ‘divorcing Wife #2′, as he puts it:

Other men change wives. Some change cars. Some change gender. The point of a midlife crisis is to demonstrate continuity with one’s youth by doing something strikingly different. To be sure, ‘different’ is a relative term: a man in the throes of such a crisis usually does the same as every other man – that, after all, is how you know it is a midlife crisis. But mine was a little different. I was the right age, at the right stage (divorcing Wife #2) and experiencing the usual middle-aged uncertainties: What’s it all about? But I did it my way. I learnt Czech.

Learning Czech led him to Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s, one of a little army of western book smugglers.  He made contact with eastern European dissidents and began teaching East European history. If he hadn’t learned Czech, he muses, he would not have found himself in Prague in November 1989 watching Vaclav Havel accept the presidency from a balcony in the town square, and, above all, could never have written Postwar.

In Eastern Europe he also encountered his East European Jewish past. In ‘Toni’ he explores his feelings about being Jewish and his attitude to Israel (controversial in the US).  The essay begins:

I never knew Toni Avegael. She was born in Antwerp in February 1926 and lived there most of her life. We were related: she was my father’s first cousin. I well remember her older sister Lily: a tall, sad lady whom my parents and I used to visit in a little house somewhere in northwest London. We have long since lost touch, which is a pity.

I am reminded of the Avegael sisters (there was a middle girl, Bella) whenever I ask myself—or am asked—what it means to be Jewish. There is no general-purpose answer to this question: it is always a matter of what it means to be Jewish for me—something quite distinct from what it means for my fellow Jews.

Judt continues, over three or four pages to explore this question – how he feels, for instance, when challenged at a dinner party with: ‘You really must stop writing these terrible things about Israel!  We Jews must stick together!’  Then this:

Unlike my table companion, I don’t expect Hitler to return. And I refuse to remember his crimes as an occasion to close off conversation: to repackage Jewishness as a defensive indifference to doubt or self-criticism and a retreat into self-pity. I choose to invoke a Jewish past that is impervious to orthodoxy: that opens conversations rather than closes them. Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like [contrarian] quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

Toni Avegael was transported to Auschwitz in 1942 and gassed to death there as a Jew. I am named after her.

In the concluding essay, ‘Magic Mountains’, Judt circles back to Switzerland and the Memory Chalet:

During the 1950s, my parents and I took a number of trips to Switzerland. This was their brief parenthetical moment of prosperity, but in any case Switzerland then was not so very expensive. I think what struck me as a child was the uncluttered regularity of everything. We usually arrived via France, in those days a poor and run-down country. French village houses were still pockmarked with shell damage, their Dubonnet ads torn and crumbling. The food was good (even a London schoolboy could tell that) but the restaurants and hotels had a damp, tumble-down air to them: cheap and cheerless.

And then you crossed the border, always at some windswept, snow-drenched pass or summit…and entered a land of neat, flower-bedecked chalets, air-brushed streets, prosperous-looking shops, and smart, satisfied citizens. Switzerland seemed so untouched by the war that had just ended. Mine was a black-and-white childhood, but Switzerland came in color: red and white, brown and green, yellow and gold. And the hotels! The Swiss hotels of my childhood evoked fresh pine, as though they had sprung organically from the surrounding forests. There was warm, solid wood everywhere: thick wooden doors, padded wooden staircases, firm wooden beds, chirping wooden clocks. [...]

My happiest memories are of Mürren. We first went there when I was eight years old: an unspoiled village halfway up the Schilthorn massif attainable only by rack railway or cable car. It takes forever—and a minimum of four trains—to reach the place, and there is little to do once you arrive. There is no particularly good food and the shopping is unexciting, to say the least. [...]

I have never thought of myself as a rooted person. We are born by chance in one town rather than another and pass through various temporary homes in the course of our vagrant lives—at least that is how it has been for me. Most places hold mixed memories: I cannot think of Cambridge or Paris or Oxford or New York without recalling a kaleidoscope of encounters and experiences. How I remember them varies with my mood. But Mürren never changes. Nothing ever went wrong there.

There is a path of sorts that accompanies Mürren’s pocket railway. Halfway along, a little café—the only stop on the line—serves the usual run of Swiss wayside fare. Ahead, the mountain falls steeply away into the rift valley below. Behind, you can clamber up to the summer barns with the cows and goats and shepherds. Or you can just wait for the next train: punctual, predictable, and precise to the second. Nothing happens: it is the happiest place in the world. We cannot choose 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.

Like me, Tony Judt was born in 1948, one of a lucky generation of westerners born at the right time:

I was born in England in 1948, late enough to avoid conscription by a few years, but in time for the Beatles: I was fourteen when they came out with “Love Me Do.” Three years later the first miniskirts appeared: I was old enough to appreciate their virtues, young enough to take advantage of them. I grew up in an age of prosperity, security, and comfort—and therefore, turning twenty in 1968, I rebelled. Like so many baby boomers, I conformed in my nonconformity.

Without question, the 1960s were a good time to be young. Everything appeared to be changing at unprecedented speed and the world seemed to be dominated by young people (a statistically verifiable observation). [...]

However, in ‘Revolutionaries’, Judt writes pretty scathingly about the delusions of western European radicals, obsessed with Paris in May ’68, but missing the real revolution that was kicking off at the same time in Prague, Warsaw and elsewhere in the communist east:

No-one should feel guilty for being born in the right place at the right time. We in the West were a lucky generation. We did not change the world; rather, the world changed obligingly for us. Everything seemed possible: unlike young people today we never doubted that there would be an interesting job for us, and thus felt no need to fritter our time away on anything as degrading as “Business School”. Most of us went on useful employment in education or public service. We devoted energy to discussing what was wrong with the world and how to change it. We protested the things we didn’t like, and we were right to do so. In our own eyes at least, we were a revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.

Though I don’t agree with all of Judt’s opinions – there are moments when he comes across as a bit of a grumpy old man – The Memory Chalet is an honest, absorbing and at times moving memoir from a courageous man who refused to abandon his intellect to the very end.

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One thought on “The Memory Chalet: born at the right time

  1. I, too, born in 1943, remember the loveliness of Switzerland, though not through the Josef K-like carapace of MDD. I went there mostly to climb in the high Alps and well recall the opulence and comfortable ‘satisfaction’ of the people and the transition from the bad roads and grey grimness of post-war France. I still go to Switzerland most years and love the beauty of the country and the mountains.

    Equally, I can never forget reading, “The Swiss, The Gold & The Dead” by Jean Ziegler, himself Swiss, which puts my appreciation into perspective.

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