Friday, 21 September 2018
This book was a charity-shop buy last week. I’d heard of the author but had read nothing by him before. The train on the jacket looks Polish, said a friend. Toby Judt, the back flap informs me, ‘was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, in addition to being the Director of the Remarque Institute, which is dedicated to the study of Europe and which he founded in 1995’.
First, the form of the book. Judt was visited by a ‘motor neuron disorder’ (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The body shuts down, bit by bit. Not the mind. Wedged into bed each night – utterly passive, unable even to scratch – and insomniac, he let his mind scroll through his life until ‘I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased’. In the morning, with the help of an assistant, the night’s work is transcribed into the matter – essays? feuilletons? – this book consists of. ‘I don’t know what sort of a genre this is.’
Content. Food, cars, Green Line buses. Class, work, migration, education, sex, ‘identity’. ‘I am struck by the man I never became.’
Declaration of interest: Judt was born (east London, working class) in 1948, I was born (Leeds, middle class) in 1951. I know uncomfortably well many of the foods and cars and confusions he talks about. He was a volunteer worker on a certain small kibbutz in Israel in 1967, I was a volunteer worker on the same kibbutz in 1969.
The Memory Chalet is a short book. The nights were finite: Judt died in 2010, aged 62. There are many good, loving memories, and Judt praises Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister 1945–51 ‘who presided over the greatest age of reform in modern British history’: ‘Attlee was an exemplary representative of the great age of middle-class Edwardian reformers: morally serious and a trifle austere. Who among our present leaders could make such a claim – or even understand it?’ Judt went to a state school that got him into Cambridge, where the teaching was good. ‘As in so many other respects, I think our generation was fortunate: we got the best of both worlds. Promoted on merit into a class and culture that were on their way out, we experienced Oxbridge just before the fall – for which I confess that my own generation, since risen to power and office, is largely responsible.’
That last bit is the killer. How has our generation – or at least the white male slice of it, the luckiest and most privileged cohort in Western history – managed to so fuck things up that here we are now with Trump and Brexit?
Writing – more accurately, thinking, and dying – in 2009, Judt saw it coming: ‘We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself – the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies – will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.’ And yet for all his intelligence and compassion and curiosity (already fluent in several European languages, he learned Czech in his forties) . . . As a historian, Judt almost certainly understood better than most of us how good can so quickly turn bad.