This review appears in the Winter–Spring 2013 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
The Memory Chalet
by Tony Judt
(New York: Penguin, 2010)
These days, as Christopher Hitchens’s heroically embarrassing career confirmed anew, any sordid Dionysian demagogue with a laptop and a grievance can find himself hailed by some dubiously literate well-wishers as “a modern Orwell.” In nine cases out of ten, his worldview, far from having the slightest resemblance to that of 1984’s author—or indeed being burdened by intellectual coherence of any kind—is merely a more loquacious updating of Marlon Brando’s fateful grunt in The Wild One:
Bewildered Teenage Girl: What are you rebelling against?
Brando: What’ve you got?
Nonetheless, as theologians assure us, a desire cannot exist without the possibility of its being satisfied, and the very fact that so many bogus neo-Orwells infest the current literary scene is no reason to deny the good work of genuine ones. And of the genuine ones, none was more cultivated, more conscious of his literary responsibilities, more humane, or less likely to play the Cher Maître than Tony Judt, who died (still only sixty-two) after some of the most hideous physical and mental sufferings that mortal man can undergo. Calling The Memory Chalet a worthy memorial to a life valorously borne fails to hint at even half its significance. That the materials included in this posthumously issued work could have been committed to paper at all counts as nothing short of a miracle, from a man who himself refused to believe in miracles.
What besieged Judt over his last two years, and finally killed him, was Lou Gehrig’s Disease: or, to give it its scientific name, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It is a progressive neurodegenerative condition for which predisposing genetic factors can, but need not, be operating (no such factors appear to have occurred in Judt’s case), and geographical factors can, but need not, be operating also (it is found with baffling frequency in, would you believe, Guam). No diet, however healthy, and no exercise schedule, however demanding, will stave off ALS if it strikes. There can be only ever an outside chance of alleviating the early symptoms. A cure remains impossible. For the victim, the outcome must be so unremittingly nightmarish that only a Dante could do it full justice, but Judt, in his detached and wry style, gives an idea:
First you can no longer write independently, requiring either an assistant or a machine in order to record your thoughts. Then your legs fail and you cannot take in new experiences, except at the cost of such logistical complexity that the mere fact of mobility becomes the object of attention rather than the benefits that mobility itself can confer. Next you begin to lose your voice . . . quite literally in that the diaphragm muscles can no longer pump sufficient air across your vocal cords to furnish them with the variety of pressure required to express meaningful sound. By this point you are almost certainly quadriplegic and condemned to long hours of silent immobility, whether or not in the presence of others. For someone wishing to remain a communicator of words and concepts, this poses an unusual challenge.
This challenge, for an amazingly long period, Judt surmounted. Paralyzed below the neck from October 2009, he managed to deliver soon afterward—at New York University’s Skirbeck Hall, decked out with a breathing tube that he described sardonically as “facial Tupperware”—a speech lasting one hundred minutes. His lecture’s text almost gloried in his incapacity either for tolerating, or for dispensing, sentimental bilge. To the audience of two thousand, marveling at his heroism and doubtless longing for him to make contact with his Inner Oprah, he peremptorily explained: “I’m English. We don’t do uplift.” Only in August 2010 did the man described by London’s Guardian newspaper as possessing, even in extremis, “the liveliest mind in New York” surrender to that easeful death with which, by then, he must have been far more than half in love.
The Memory Chalet takes the form of essays that can be read in almost any order but that taken as a whole provide a remarkably complete picture of Judt’s development. If he had never written a word on history, sociology, or politics, he would still be worth reading about by virtue of his oddball nurture. Yet probably the oddball nurture itself contributed to the merits of his writing. It certainly ensured his own permanent position among what he calls, in this book, “edge people”: people who cannot be pigeonholed in terms of identity politics (one of Judt’s abiding detestations), people so culturally variegated that they could not be power maniacs even if they wanted to be. He notes: “I suppose I should seek comfort in the familiar insult of ‘rootless cosmopolitan.’ But . . . far from being rootless, I am all too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages.”
Neither Judt’s Belgian Jewish father nor his Eastern European Jewish mother had the smallest concern, even dietary, for creedal dictates. It is notable, and somehow characteristic, that young Tony lived on food as boring and flavorless as that of any postwar English Gentile. (Years after the United Kingdom’s statutory rationing ended, foreign nutriment remained so inconceivable that one producer at the Panorama television program devised for April Fool’s Day 1957 a hoax documentary about spaghetti farming, in the serene confidence that the British masses would believe every word of it. They did. Many viewers telephoned the BBC to ask where they could obtain spaghetti bushes for their own gardens.)
With his parents Judt spoke, at home, both English and French, as if such bilingualism were the most natural thing in the world for a lower-middle-class boy in South London. Judt acquired other foreign languages at his nondescript, unglamorous, secular high school (Emanuel College) in the nick of time—from 1959 to 1965, before Education Secretary Tony Crosland proclaimed: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every [expletive deleted] grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.” This Carthaginian peace Crosland imposed, ensuring that Judt’s narrative of Emmanuel College portrays an England now unimaginably distant.
No Boy’s Own Paper wistfulness attaches to Judt’s account of his adolescent education. Most children at Emanuel in 1959 had never seen a black, Chinese, or Indian immigrant, with the result that they concentrated their ethnic abhorrence upon the one minority visible each day in the playground: himself. “Frequent low-level anti-Jewish slurs and name-calling,” Judt sighs, “were not particularly frowned upon.” There were, admittedly, consolations of a rather boorish kind. Judt’s profile of the schoolteacher who first taught him German, Joe Craddock, displays beneath the outward exasperation an underlying fondness. Although in verbal terms Craddock was an insufferable sadist—he inspired such fear with his tongue that he never needed to administer corporal punishment, not that any boys would have dared complain about him even if he had—he obtained results, and was, in his cruel fashion, a man of honor:
Joe would be impossible today . . . he was infamously politically incorrect even by the standards of his age. Understanding full well that the only credible challenge to his monopoly of our attention would be the attractions of the opposite sex, he was brutally dismissive of nascent libidos: “If ye want te play with girls, don’t waste my time! You can ’ave ’em any time; but this is yer only chance to learn this language and you can’t do both.”
Nowadays, almost no one is even taught German. The consensus appears to be that the young mind can handle but one language at a time, preferably the easiest. In American high schools, no less than in Britain’s egregiously underperforming comprehensive schools, students are urged to believe that they have done well—or at least the best they could. Teachers are discouraged from distinguishing among their charges; it is simply not done to do as Joe did and praise first-rate work while damning the lesser performers.
From King’s College, Cambridge, Judt took away a lasting esteem not for his professors, who appear to have left almost no mark upon an intellect already well stocked, but for the “bedders.” What is, or was, a “bedder”? Judt reveals: “Bedders, like scouts [their Oxford equivalent], were [ladies] expected to prepare a fire (in the days of open-hearth heating), clean the young gentlemen’s rooms, make their beds and change their linen, undertake minor shopping expeditions on their behalf, and generally provide them with the services to which they had presumably become accustomed in the course of their upbringing.” When the undergraduate hidalgo had overimbibed, and (upon returning to his rooms) could articulate his Weltschmerz only by profuse emissions of projectile vomit, there the bedder would be, cleaning up the consequent mess without a syllable of reproach.
It will surprise no one familiar with English mores to learn that (a) the bedders derived mostly from a working-class background, which cut them off, however great their aptitude, from any chance of higher schooling, and (b) this background made them authentic social conservatives long after the Cantabridgian student demographic had come to be dominated by spoilt Maoists from Eton. In short, the Cambridge dialectic of bedder versus student resembled that of a female Jeeves versus a latter-day (and newly noxious) Wooster. We need simply contemplate the current British reign of that grotesque, cartoonish man-child “Dave” Cameron to realize that, from this contest, Wooster emerged victorious.
Not that Judt labors this point, or any other point. Just as Orwell deserves honor not only for Animal Farm but also for his miscellaneous musings on common toads, Edwardian murders, and naughty postcards, so Judt deserves honor for the compulsive readability he brings to other nonpolitical subjects. Example: Citroën cars. Who can make Citroën cars an object of fascination for those among us devoid of even a driving license? Answer: Judt can. His father became something of a Citroën obsessive, this at a time when British roads (which included no motorways before 1958) lacked not only an abundance of foreign cars but an abundance of cars tout court.
Men born before World War I were well into middle age before cars were available to most Europeans. . . . I see him [Judt senior] now as a frustrated man: trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing work which bored and perhaps even humiliated him. Cars—cars to race, cars to discuss, cars to tinker with, and cars to take him home to Europe—were his community. Not caring much for pubs or drink, and with no workmates, he turned the Citroën car into an all-purpose companion and visiting card—culminating in his election to the presidency of the Citroën Car Club of Great Britain. What other men sought and found in alcohol and mistresses, my father sublimated into his love affair with a car company—which no doubt accounts for my mother’s instinctive hostility to the whole business.
The reviewer’s temptation, as readers will by now have gathered, is to quote without end from Judt’s accounts. Such as his recollections of kibbutz living—“Muscular Judaism”—which at first he cherished. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young and dilettantish fornicators living off the Israeli taxpayer’s teat was very heaven. (Judt notes the resemblance between kibbutz socializing and the polyamorous collectives from nineteenth-century America, of which the Oneida Community ranks among the most disreputable.)
Then, alas for Judt’s Middle East future, his fellow kibbutzniks learned the appalling news that he planned to study history at Cambridge. They might have countenanced him leaving Israel to attempt a degree in, say, electrical engineering (though even for that they would have expected Judt to wait until he was twenty-five). Wanting a history degree they viewed as treason. For all their strategic discussions’ pretentiousness, they felt toward the life of the mind not mere indifference but a truculent, visceral scorn. Allowing himself no anger, only sorrow, Judt reflects:
Visiting Kibbutz Machanayim [in 1969 with a girlfriend] I encountered “Uri,” a fellow orange-picker of earlier days. Without bothering to acknowledge me, much less trouble himself with the usual greetings, Uri passed in front of us, pausing only to demand: “Ma ata oseah kan?” (“What are you doing here?”) . . . I was lost to the cause and thus effectively “dead.”
After Cambridge, he studied—by invitation—at Paris’s École Normale Supérieure. He retains no illusions, assuming he ever had them, about the chief problem of French intellectual life: its frequent reluctance to engage in what dimmer minds are apt to call the reality-based community. At one point he cites a French expert who, having witnessed England’s first locomotive engine, reported back to King Louis-Philippe: “The thing is impossible. It cannot work.” “Now there,” Judt observes, “was a French intellectual.”
Still, Judt is too erudite to feel for French culture the ordinary emotion of Anglo-Saxon empiricist contempt, most of which comprises mere elaborate rephrasings of “The wogs begin at Calais.” Judt quotes Raymond Aron—no fantasist he—as saying of his own École years: “I have never met so many intelligent men gathered in such a small space.” A civilization that produces so intimidating a cerebral elite as Aron and his rivals cannot altogether be dismissed, except by those whose entire attitude to serious nonutilitarian scholarship is that of kibbutzniks and of Pol Pot, not to mention of tabloid editors in our own day. (During the 1980s, Judt solved his obligatory midlife crisis by teaching himself to read, write, and speak Czech. How many other fortyish Englishmen could have managed a comparable feat of self-discipline?)
The one lacuna in Judt’s mental equipment is, appropriately enough, the one lacuna in Orwell’s. That eloquent absence Evelyn Waugh diagnosed when praising Orwell’s journalism:
He [Orwell] has an unusually high moral sense and respect for justice and truth, but he seems never to have been touched at any point by a conception of religious thought and life. . . . He frequently brings his argument to the point when having, with great acuteness, seen the falsity and internal contradiction of the humanist view of life, there seems no alternative but the acceptance of a revealed religion, and then stops short.
This policy on Judt’s part becomes first obvious, and then inescapable, when one reads his few references to his own private life and the implications that such multiple marriages as his would have for standards more generally. More alarming is the casual remark Judt drops near The Memory Chalet’s end: “At Cambridge, cool and worldly, I helped a friend arrange an abortion for his girl.” He never again addresses this topic, which does not seem to have troubled him in the longer term. But the moral deadness these words bespeak can hardly be overlooked in retrospect. Would Judt have been equally “cool and worldly” about smothering an infant in its cradle? Did his conscience ever visit him with the faintest realization that by abetting an abortion he had abetted a murder?
Nevertheless, Judt went on to experience such diabolical tortures of body and spirit that he could well be said to have done all his time in purgatory well before his funeral. Meanwhile, there is his body of authorial work as a whole to be considered, and for its insights—not least those in The Memory Chalet—we need to exhibit our gratitude.
When biographer Philip Ziegler grew increasingly despondent at the misdeeds of his subject Lord Mountbatten, he resorted to placing on his desk a note that read: “Remember that, in spite of everything, he was a great man.” A variant of this would fit Judt. Ultimately, though, there can be no satisfactory conclusion to a study of Judt outside Orwell’s own words (he meant them for Dickens): “a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry—in other words . . . a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” Amen. ♦
R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times.