In January 2010, eminent author and historian Tony Judt announced to the public in a New York Review of Books essay titled ‘Night’ that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ‘ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole,’ he wrote. ‘First you lose the use of a digit or two; then a limb; then, and almost inevitably, all four. By my present stage of decline, I am thus effectively quadriplegic.’
The essay inspired a sense of horror and utter amazement: Judt was composing this confessional essay from memory – glimmers of ideas, thoughts, feelings and obsessions that were trapped inside his inquisitive mind, thriving in a body that was failing him. The author, who was raised poor in south London by Jewish immigrant parents of Russian descent, passed away on August 6 at the age of 62, but not before dictating The Memory Chalet, a posthumous collection of essays, to assistants over the course of his final year. Most of these personal remembrances (with titles such as ‘Food,’ ‘Cars,’ ‘The Green Line Bus’ and ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’) were published bi-weekly throughout the year in the NYRB as a tribute to the intellectual dynamo.
The author had already published plenty of accessible work, including Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century; and Postwar, his opus documenting the history of European culture from 1945 to the present. Yet for those wanting an introduction to his work, The Memory Chalet is a wonderful place to start. It’s an almost accidental memoir by one of the brightest minds of his generation. Judt spent a lifetime studying the 20th century, and The Memory Chalet is a beautifully written and thought-provoking re-examination of it.