The Memory Chalet
Tony Judt was an eminent historian. He wrote acclaimed books, he wrote for the New York Review of Books, he was a university professor. He was an intellectual, but in the best possible sense of the word. He was a public intellectual. In 2008, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehig’s Disease. By October 2009 he was paralysed from the neck down. He died in August last year.
Yet, in those last months, he constructed a number of powerful, moving essays, mostly about his life, now collected in The Memory Chalet. The title refers to the technique Judt employed for remembering the essays as he composed them in his head at night. Using his childhood memories of a Swiss chalet, he used the memory palace technique in order to order his thoughts, to then dictate them the next day.
I read a fair few of the essays as they were published in the New York Review, but having them all collated in one volume is far more satisfying. Judt’s story, although still episodic, appears more complete.
Judt was an amazing writer, in that he was equal parts inspiring, informative and accessible. The latter is a key quality for me. Here was an intellectual who had the clarity of thought and the accuracy of phrase to present his thoughts, theories and memories. Intellectual thought should be available to all, it should not be hidden or coded to the extent that only other ‘intellectuals’ can unpick it. The message, whatever it may be, is all the more powerful for how well it is delivered.
Of course, this is where I’m already slipping up, as I seem to have drifted off in this review, so forgive me. But something else about Judt’s writing, as stated above, is that inspires. For me, it inspires me to try to be a better writer, and to try to engage more with intellectual thought. While I doubt I’ll be scratching my goatee whilst discussing philosophy anytime soon, I can always do more thinking and engage more in others’ thinking too. There is a lot to learn out there, and a lot to understand. How can I better engage with what is meaningful in the world?
In many ways, it is a simple memoir. Judt’s essays offer snapshots of his life at various points. The reader pieces together Judt’s life story, and his outlook on life, amid tales of austerity in London in the 1950s, the free-thinking and opportunity of the 1960s, and the reaction to such thinking in later years. The essays are personal, human and funny. Judt was a public intellectual, but he also comes across as a great bloke too.
It is a shame that public intellectuals are now few and far between. Where are the people to help us make sense of the world, to guide us, to question us, to infuriate us? Hopefully this book will help make such a role appear important again. Or maybe it will just help me hunt such people out.
If nothing else, this book shows that everyone’s story is valid, interesting and even entertaining, if presented well. Telling our own stories is something we can all strive for, and perhaps we needn’t wait until our last days to share those stories? Perhaps that is why we blog – as deep down amid our amateur writer/blogger/whatever insecurities we know that it is worthwhile to get our voice and our stories out there. We know that sharing our thoughts need not be purely an exercise in navel-gazing.