- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2011

By Tony Judt
Penguin Press, $25.95, 226 pages

When the Anglo-American historian Tony Judt died in August at the age of 62, he had been living for the previous two years in the ever more immobilizing stranglehold of ALS, often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the unflinching fortitude that characterizes his fight against this terrible affliction, he describes in painful detail, but without any trace of self-pity, the physical state to which it rapidly reduced him. That brings him to the long nights, so much worse than the equally immobile days because of the lack of external distraction, when he had nothing to fall back on but his own mental resources.

It is typical of Judt’s true grit that he transforms what others have dubbed the curse of his particular disease - the cruel fact that the mind remains sharp while the body containing it fails progressively - into something positive, an escape from his physical imprisonment through the memories that are still very much with him.

“But if you must suffer thus,” he writes, “better to have a well-stocked head: full of recyclable and multi-purpose pieces of serviceable recollection, readily available to an analytically disposed mind.”

People often talk about being thrown back solely on their own inner resources, but seldom can there have been a more stark, or a more true, example of such a phenomenon than Judt’s “Memory Chalet.” For such was his capacity for summoning up the interstices of his past in those nocturnal forensic journeys of the mind that he was able the next day to communicate them, and that is what we have, in all their glory, in these pages.

The particular circumstances, dreadful though they were, in which Judt summoned up these memories seem crucial to their peculiar intensity, testifying to their role as an escape from a bleak present and a still bleaker future, their power heightened by an unspoken but ever hovering contrast.

These recollections range widely from the intensely personal and autobiographical to social, cultural and political observations that remind the reader not only of the author’s intellect - that “analytically disposed mind,” as he put it - but of his lifelong engagement with the great issues of his own time and the past that shaped it. Whether you agree with his opinions or not - and I have to say that I differ strongly with his pronouncements on the Iraq War and Israel - the quality of this man’s mind shines through and reminds us constantly of what a vibrant resource was so untimely snuffed out last year.

The word chalet in the title is no accident, well-chosen not only because Judt had a fondness for Switzerland but because it represents for him a kind of mental emotional haven. His memories of journeys there as a child stand out as some of his happiest recollections, the coziness and comfort of Switzerland contrasting sharply with a still austere Britain. Although, Judt being Judt, he is alive to the less attractive aspects of Swiss history and culture, for him personally, everything about this foreign paradise is soothing and comforting.

So it is no accident that, earlier in this decade, following an operation for cancer and a bout of heavy radiation, he took his family there, reveling in his young sons’ discovery of the charms that still held him in their sway. The Swiss village of Murren where he took them, with its little funicular railway, was for him quite simply “Paradise,” with only happy memories, unlike the kaleidoscope of conflicting memories that crashed in on him when he recalled Oxford or Cambridge, Paris or New York:

“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.”

For all Judt’s determinedly stiff upper lip, chinks in even as formidable an armor of courage as his can appear, as is entirely natural. But they point to an inner turmoil that is heart-rending, as when he says, in his customary dry manner, that “to fall prey” to a disease such as his “is surely to have offended the Gods at some point, and there is nothing more to be said.”

But in those dark nights of his soul, thoughts like that, even if nothing more is to be spoken of them, testify to something surely capable of terrorizing or torturing even the strongest character. One can only hope that the copious contents of Judt’s “Memory Chalet” and the soothing charms of that peaceful Swiss refuge and its eternal railway not only brought him comfort then, but succeeded in their most crucial task of all: keeping such dark thoughts from overwhelming him at the terrible end when it finally came.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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