Tony Judt had his problems with classifications of all sorts and he too cannot be easily classified—and it is good that way. He was many things—English, Jewish, American, historian, an academic, a public intellectual and a Social Democrat—but never quite, completely or with loyalty, and as a result he was often criticized or found himself feeling at odds with ideological traditions and established intellectual practices.
He preferred the edge, he writes in his collection of short essays entitled The Memory Chalet (Vintage 2011)—or perhaps it was not even a preference, but rather what he became in the course of his journeys as he travelled physically across Europe and the U.S. and mentally across the world of ideas that marked the twentieth century—in good and in bad.
According to Timothy Snyder, with whose help and in conversation he compiled his last book Thinking the Twentieth Century (Penguin Press, 2012), Tony Judt was in search of truth, but unlike most of his fellow historians, he was a pluralist, having recognized that “the search for truth involves many kinds of seeking”—he was, in other words, a contrarian spirit always in conversation with his own and “other peoples’ conventions.”
When in 2008 at the age of sixty he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) he knew first, that he did not have much time left and second, that this, the last, phase of his life would be especially difficult as he gradually lost all muscle strength, hence also the capability to walk, write or breath on his own, albeit not the ability of sensation or that of thinking. His essay ‘Night,’ first published in January 2010 in The New York Review of Books and reproduced in The Memory Chalet, is a powerful exposition of what it is like to suffer from this disease, and all the more compelling for its directness and absence of self-pity. Elsewhere in The Memory Chalet Tony Judt writes that at least he had many memories he could retrace with the help of mnemonic devices as well as “a variety of uses to which [to] put them.” That is how he survived the many sleepless nights as he lay immobile in his bed without going mad—and how he managed to produce two additional books.
Thinking the Twentieth Century represents a partial fulfillment of Judt’s original project before he fell sick to write an “intellectual and cultural history of twentieth century social thought” and, as such, it is a good supplement to his other major work Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (Penguin Press 2005). Written on the basis of a series of conversations it discusses the emergence and influence of the major ideological currents of the twentieth century, namely fascism, Nazism, communism, Marxism, Zionism, social democracy and capitalism as well as their reception within specific intellectual streams which were nationally-delimited, i.e. in France, the UK, Eastern Europe etc. By reason of its format it lacks the comprehensiveness of a book with similar objectives, albeit only focusing on Marxism, namely Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism (Yale University Press 2011), yet it still provides a useful and insightful look into how ideology is transformed into social and political theory and vice-versa, and the role of intellectuals in this treacherous game.
The Memory Chalet is an altogether different book, much more personal, definitely more literary, funny, moving and engaging—and it very likely will also speak to readers with no professional interest in politics or the social sciences. It is a memoir written in an unconventional style, that is to say not in a narrative biographical format, but in the form of associations to the ‘things’ that mattered in his life: food, cars, trains, work, love, women, midlife crisis, the sixties’ cultural revolution, books, places, family, holidays, mountains, history, identity. Here, unlike in all his other books, it is the detail—more so, the palpable detail of the senses—that guides Tony’s creative mind as “a literary Gepetto building little Pinnochios” which connect in impressionist style “the private and the public, the reasoned and the intuited, the recalled and the felt.”
In the last essay of this book, Tony Judt recalls his holidays as a child, and later as a father himself, in the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland and, specifically, Mürren. Unlike all other places which held mixed memories, his memory of Mürren never changed since “nothing ever went wrong there.” And it is there he saw himself finishing: “going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.”
Tony Judt died August 6, 2010, only a month after completing work on his last two books.