Thoughts on Tony Judt’s memoir, “The Memory Chalet”

The phrase “take a trip down memory lane” has been shown by modern neuroscience to be not only a stale cliché but also outrageously simplistic. For the metaphor to even begin to approach reality there would need to be an admission that there are many different lanes, each branching into and out of one another, and that these lanes are constantly shifting, vanishing, altering. All this qualified complexity rather defeats the point of a cogent metaphor, and it can therefore be dismissed. The preferred mnemonic of Tony Judt, the great historian of the twentieth century, was the memory chalet, his own personal variation on the memory palace. In his memoir, The Memory Chalet, he describes his nightly trip (I’ve used that word again) to the chalet that acts as a useful representation of his life and memories:

“The advantage of a chalet lay not only in the fact that I could envisage it in very considerable and realistic detail — from the snow rail by the doorstep to the inner window keeping the Valaison winds at bay — but that it was a place I would want to visit again and again. In order for a memory palace to work as a storehouse of infinitely reorganised and regrouped recollections, it needs to be a building of extraordinary appeal, if only for one person. Each night, for days, weeks, months, and now well over a year, I have returned to that chalet.”

The need for this systematic, Sherlockian remembrance of things past arose after Judt was diagnosed with ALS, which gradually stripped him of all his physical functions, leaving him with little but his mind and memories. The memoir is segmented, with each “sketch” being represented by a room in his chalet (Or is it the other way round?). The chalet itself was the site of a childhood holiday in Switzerland (as far as I know, Judt never mentioned the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who would have enjoyed both Judt’s obsession with time and loss and his fixation on Swiss hotels). It is a slight but delicious portion: my favourite sketch is titled “Food” and is an extended rumination on Judt’s culinary Proustian triggers. Other sketches, “Cars”, “The Green Line Bus”, “Kibbutz”, all read like slices of a healthily variegated life. He is at his best when the political collides with the personal; he has travelled widely and was present at many of the decisive events of the final half of the twentieth century. An intriguing contradiction reveals itself here: personally momentous occasions are often historically insignificant (however earth-shattering they may feel to the individual), and Judt is well-placed to demonstrate this.

Gore Vidal once wrote a letter to his half-sister which included the line: “In an odd way, these accidents have a way of turning out most happily, if only because they are facts and it’s always easy to have some attitude toward a reality as opposed to the confusion with which we survey the imponderables.” He was talking about a personal crisis, but such advice can be useful elsewhere (incidentally, Vidal named his own memoir Palimpsest in reference to the rewriting of memory that so intrigued Judt when navigating his chalet). Judt’s attention to facts, the raw data of history (he sniffed at the tired postmodern distrust of facts and figures), ultimately led him to reject the Grand Theories of Humanity that dominated his youthful years: Zionism and Marxism. He was not a mere onlooker: he actually did work on an Israeli kibbutz, and managed to get to Paris in ’68 at the time of the student protests, but this youthful radicalism was in a permanent state of tension with his instinctively scholarly eye. The memoir is superb at showing how personal and historical events combined to induce this transformation. I mention this only to highlight how interesting the memoir of a historian can be; the parallel lives, one experienced as the raw stuff of life and the other learned in retrospect, intersect and produce a narrative that is much richer as a result. To put it crudely, Judt sets himself “in context”.

I am a partisan reviewer here; Judt is my favourite historian. There can be little doubt that his panoramic history of the second half of twentieth century Europe, Postwar, is his masterpiece, but it is two other slighter books that I find myself returning to most often. Ill Fares the Land is a robust and refreshingly non-Utopian paean to the welfare state and social democracy. And Thinking the Twentieth Century, a series of discussions between Judt and the historian Timothy Synder, is a majestic and very personal account of the intellectual life of the last century.

His memoir is a fleshing out of the personal matter contained in Thinking the Twentieth Century, and is not void of hiccups. His comments on political correctness are dated and unreflective, but I am prepared to give him the benefit of the generational doubt here. If the book feels a little incomplete or fragmented, and it definitely does, perhaps this is because all honest memoirs should.

Nonetheless, we need people like Judt more than ever. The great subject of his later life, the political project that gave him very little cognitive dissonance, was the European Union and the supremacy of the welfare state. It is a pity that he passed away before the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union earlier this year; his is a voice that would have been worth listening to as we navigate these uncertain shores. A sketch in this memoir titled “Austerity”, an account of the post-war economic policies of Judt’s childhood, reads rather unsettlingly at a time when that word has become ubiquitous in British political discourse.

The tightrope that all public intellectuals must walk is a precarious one: the supreme ambition is to marry passionate convictions with a healthy respect for nuance and doubt; leaning too far in either direction results in either a stubborn bore or an unhelpful vacillator, respectively. Tony Judt remains one of the twentieth century’s most outstanding examples of this balanced ideal.