The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt

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The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Bone
Reviewed by Jill Bone
Summary: A superb collection of poignant, political essays from a revered historian.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: November 2010
Publisher: William Heinemann
ISBN: 978-0434020966

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In 2008 the historian Tony Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative disorder that eventually results in complete paralysis for the sufferer. Unable to jot down ideas as they came to him, Judt had to rely on his memory to hold them until he had the chance to dictate his words to somebody else. His memory, which was already good, became exceptional. The progress of the disorder left Judt unable to move, but no mental deterioration or lack of sensation occurred, which he describes as a mixed blessing. He had to endure whole nights lying in the same position, unable to roll over or even to scratch an itch, a prisoner in his own body. To preserve his sanity during these tortuous nights he focussed on events from his own past, linking then with other events and ideas it had never occurred to him were connected. It was during these reveries that the essays in The Memory Chalet were not only conceived, but also developed in their entirety.

It's the clarity of ideas and reference to the present day that make these essays more than a nostalgic trawl through the past. Austerity has a things were better in the old days conclusion but it rings true: in post-war Britain, having to make do with relatively little became an ethic in itself and fostered an integrity lacking in today's consumer society and the superficial values of its politicians. Judt's attack on the inarticulacy of younger generations also resonates. Text speak, intellectual insecurity and an emphasis on freedom of expression over clarity have created a youth adept at pithy ironic statements but unable to fully engage in discussions. A brief scan of almost any Facebook profile will confirm this to be true.

Judt's clear style is similar to Orwell's writing, as are his political values. A confirmed social democrat, he is highly critical of both communist idealism and the prevailing laissez faire economic model. In Captive Minds, he asserts that both ideologies are simply abstractions, held to be self evident by their followers who do not realise that their minds have been captured. Judt was a fervent Zionist in his teens, and spent several years living on a kibbutz in Israel before becoming disillusioned with the project, uncomfortable with the narrow outlook of his comrades. This criticism of the kibbutz society could equally be levelled at holier-than-thou environmentalist communities: 'The mere fact of collective self government, or egalitarian distribution of consumer durables, does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others. Indeed, to the extent that it contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self regard, it actually reinforces the worst kind of ethnic solipsism.'

Judt's writing in The Memory Chalet is often scathing but his polemic is always tempered by beauty. He evokes post-war Britain in the same way that Orwell did the thirties, artfully preserving treasured memories of transport, food and education for future generations, such as his childhood trips across London in The Green Line Bus. Tony Judt died earlier this year, an exalted academic. These accessible, human essays are bound to be well received, and will turn a wider readership on to his other writings, and perhaps history in general.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

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