I am a latecomer to Judt’s writing. In much the way that the name Adam Gopnik came to mean more to me with each of his New Yorker essays, it was the steady appearance of Judt’s memoir pieces in the New York Review of Books that taught me to love the precision of his thought and the elegance of his expression. I hadn’t read more than three of these essays before I wanted an entire book of them. Now, posthumously, here it is.
And now, book in hand, I re-read everything I've already read (along with those pieces new to me) hungrily and with heightened appreciation--not simply because the writer is dead, though that always affects reading work we’ve come to love, but also because having all the memoir essays together in a bound volume makes the reading a new experience. Is it the more comfortable size of the pages, the lack of a magazine’s distractions, the comforting way the hardcover volume stays still in my hand, not flapping around like a newspaper? The mere fact that they are together, one following another, makes the experience newly exciting, and I am able to see and feel more easily this time around the complete structure of each essay, the way the writer brings it all home in the final sentences, completing (each time) a thought that began on the essay’s first page and took the two of us together through rich, meandering lanes of (his) memory, reflection and interpretation.
Judt grew up in England and studied in Paris and only came later to the United States, but his personal historical frame of reference is mine, simply because he was born in 1948. I say “personal” since Judt studied and wrote and taught history all his life, encompassing a breadth of knowledge greatly beyond my own. He worked through his “midlife crisis” by learning the Czech language; I only went to graduate school in philosophy. Quand même, nous étions tous les deux des soixante-huitards. Still, for better or for worse, we were both children of the Sixties.
But wait. I need to start over. If I had picked up this book and opened to a page in the middle, knowing nothing of the author ahead of time, I would have been quickly won over by the penetration of his intellect, the polished turn of every sentence and the subjects on which he turned his writer’s gaze. Any reader coming to this book new to Judt’s work, however, learns in the prefatory chapters that these are no ordinary excursions into nostalgia, for at the time of these writings he was in his last two years of the “progressive imprisonment without parole” of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no pain with ALS, he tells us, but there is no loss of sensation, either.
It is not as though you lose the desire to stretch, to bend, to stand or lie or run or even exercise. But when the urge comes over you there is nothing—nothing—that you can do except seek some tiny substitute or else find a way to suppress the thought and the accompanying muscle memory.
Nighttime, visited by insomnia and unable even to change the position of a foot or hand, was the worst, and yet, “if you must suffer thus,” Judt wrote in May of this past year, dictating the sentences to his collaborator, “better to have a well-stocked head.” Having, as he did, all those “pieces of serviceable recollection, readily available to an analytically disposed mind,” bits of memory and endless wakeful hours in the dark to rearrange and connect them, what Judt needed was a mnemonic device with which to record the rearrangement, the new verbal composition, so he would be able to retrieve it the following day. This he found in his detailed visual memory of a little Swiss chalet visited with his family when he was ten years old.
He would map each essay, as it took shape, onto his mental map of the chalet, beginning a composing session by taking possession, in imagination, of one of the armchairs in the chalet’s public room. And then--.
Once I know roughly what I want to say and a sequence in which it is best said, I leave the armchair and go back to the door of the chalet itself. From here I retrace my steps, usually from the first storage closet—for skis, let’s say—toward ever more substantial spaces: the bar, the dining room, the lounge, the old-fashioned wooden key rack pinned under the cuckoo clock, the rather random collection of books straggling up the back staircase, and thence to one of any number of bedrooms. To each of these locations has been assigned a staging point in a narrative, say, or perhaps an illustrative example.
In the morning, the writer could once again take his mental walk of the night before through the Swiss chalet, from one station to another, picking up the pieces of his essay where he had stored them in the dark hours. Whether I am more amazed or moved by this feat, I find it hard to say, but that is the explanation of the book’s title and the manner in which the essays were composed.
Most of the pieces in The Memory Chalet have one-word titles, simple, straightforward names like “Austerity.” (Austerity is one of Judt’s favorite words and one he uses approvingly in other essays besides the one so titled.) “Mimetic Desire” does not sound exactly straightforward--more like a paper to be read at an MLA conference. It may, however, have been the first Judt piece I read in NYRB, and if I fell in love with the writer it was for this sentence: “I love trains, and they have always loved me back.” Yes, yes, yes!
As a child, I always felt uneasy and a little constrained around people.... Being always felt stressful—wherever I was there was something to do, someone to please, a duty to be completed, a role inadequately fulfilled: something amiss. Becoming, on the other hand, was relief. I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.
Let me repeat two of those sentences:
“I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better.”
“But the train was very heaven.”
That should give you some idea.
A reader need not have known the Sixties or grown up on trains, lived in Paris or read French philosophy or worked on an Israeli kibbutz to appreciate this book. I have never been to Israel, much less worked on a kibbutz. I have never lived in London or visited Prague or Vienna and will never be a historian, much less a leading American intellectual. Moreover, the torment of ALS is an experience few of Judt’s readers have known first-hand. None of that matters. Memory’s intimacy as accomplished in memoir builds context for readers, and so in reading we walk with Tony through the little Swiss chalet, through the streets of Putney and the halls of Cambridge. We take the freighter to Israel and travel by automobile across the United States, marveling at the literary holdings of university libraries surrounded by cornfields. What is familiar we see with fresh eyes, and what historical or political background we lack, his words and thoughts give us a hunger to acquire.
The last page of this book sends me back to the image on the cover, and right away I want to open it and begin the journey anew. I don’t want it to be over. I hope the author’s last mental images took him to that place he most loved, “going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.” Thank you, Tony. Thank you so much.