four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
By: 
Tony Judt
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0

A-The Memory ChaletIn 2008, Tony Judt, an acclaimed, if controversial, British historian and public intellectual who taught at NYU, was diagnosed with the degenerative neuron disease ALS. In the two years before his death in August 2010, at age 62, he completed this series of 25 autobiographical essays. Reviewed: Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2006), considered the definitive history of postwar Europe.

The Topic: As Tony Judt slowly began losing his physical abilities to ALS and his mind became trapped in an uncooperative body, he composed 25 short pieces in his head during his sleepless nights. His essays form a "memory chalet," based on a small Swiss hotel he visited as a child, which allows him to arrange his memories in the "rooms" of his past. Many of the essays recollect his earlier years: his favorite food; his experience in ration-driven postwar Britain; his teenage years as a kibbutznik in Israel; his time at university. Behind each essay lies the thinking that has defined Judt as one of our greatest public intellectuals. He ruminates on the pitfalls of America's and Britain's educational system; defends social democracy; and considers sexual politics and the meaning of Zionism and Judaism. Despite his impending death, The Memory Chalet is a love letter to the richness of his life, with no regrets.
Penguin. 352 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781594202896

Denver Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"By habit, Judt is driven to find in his own story something more significant than a story of private wounds, traumas and grievances. This may seem in our solipsistic age like a novel approach, but it is in fact an older one. It links The Memory Chalet with the great autobiographies of Henry Adams and Frederick Douglass." John Broening

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"All the pieces move: glittering, tingling chapters are rich in smells and sights and sounds and movement. ... It's enough to renew a reader's faith in a writer's ability to cut a path to immortality." Susan Salter Reynolds

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Judt has offered a pithy book of tiny narratives ... where nearly every sentence is an argument: about academia, intellectuals, class, public life, the '60s, Jewishness, sex, and career or vocation. ... The blunt, dismissive side of the endless debater and critic has not dulled from its sharper edges just because of mortality's approach." Eric Weinberger

Daily Beast 4 of 5 Stars
"Trapped in a body in rapid decline, Judt's brilliant mind had never been more active. ... But if tragedy cannot be redeemed it can sometimes be defied, as Judt confirms in this exquisitely graceful memoir of a happy life." John Gray

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"More than a memoir, it's a bracing spiritual autobiography of a man whose lofty and old-fashioned goal, repeatedly realized in these pages, was to think for himself--and push each of us to do the same." Mike Fischer

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"You would expect a memoir written in such circumstances to have an elegiac quality, but here there is no dying fall. The curiosity, intellectual fearlessness, relish for comic detail and crystalline prose are the marks of a man possessed not by death, but by life." Jane Shilling

Critical Summary

"Loss is loss," Judt writes, "and nothing is gained by calling it a nicer name." Many of these chronological essays written while Judt struggled with ALS first appeared in the New York Review of Books, but taken together, they offer an astute portrait of a life cut short--but one also fully, richly lived. Judt writes with the same incisive intellectual clarity and polished writing of his other books, here evoking specific experiences formative to his childhood and intellectual growth. Yet, as critics point out, The Memory Chalet is no typical memoir. Instead, it goes well beyond personal, self-driven recollections to ruminate on the larger importance of Judt's experiences. In the end, "perhaps The Memory Chalet isn't an uplifting work," concludes the Denver Post. "It is better than that: It is a sustaining one."