Courtney Johnston's Reviews > The Memory Chalet

The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt
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's review
Dec 31, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, history, borrowed
Read from June 04 to 06, 2011

A 'memory palace', Judt says in this introduction of short biographical texts, is too big, too opulent for his state of mind right now. But a memory chalet - like the small, homey place he stayed with his family as a 10-year-old on a trip to Switzerland when finances were unusually good - yes, a memory chalet he could handle.

'Memory palace' here refers to the memory trick, of laying out a speech or train of thought for later recall by pinning each point to a familiar feature of a building. It's a tool Judt has come to use and to hone over long sleepless nights. Dying of Lou Gehrig's disease - a neurological disorder which sees him first lose control of his limbs, and then, the time will come, of his diaphragm, meaning he can't push air over his vocal cords, and therefore cannot write nor speak - each night his caregiver wheels him to his cot, lays him out carefully (when you can't move, any misalignment of head to neck, neck to chest, torso to limbs, is agonising), and leaves him in the dark, not to sleep, but to remember and to write inside his head, waiting until the next day comes and he can mutter and murmur his 'writing' to a friend, who will take it down for him.

It is appalling to stand by as such a literate and literary man, a man in love with words and languages, is slowly stripped of his power to communicate. And Judt is not going gently - he describes the disease as a catastrophe. But he does not dwell on it; instead, the little histories (quite like anything he's written before, and originally never intended for publication) cast back to his childhood, his father's love of Citroen cars, his own solitary adventures on London's bus and subway networks, family holidays and ferries to France, his schooling and university years, his gradual move from the 'isms' of the 1960s to a detached reasoning type of history later in his career.

Perhaps because they were not intended to be published, but were more of a survival mechanism, the essays do not come across as at all pious or sentimental - they are not intended to help us live better lives, or meet death with a smiling face. Instead, they feel like a slow tracking of many threads: as Judt's life rapidly contracts to what is available inside his own head, he uses this material for mental exercise.

I found the meditations on contemporary Jewish identity (Judt is Jewish, but not practicing, outgrew his teenage Zionism quickly, and is bemused, even frustrated, by contemporary American Jewish attitudes towards the Middle East) particularly interesting. We have copies of Judt's history of post-World War II Europe and his 'Ill Fares the Land' on contemporary politics lying about the house. I look forward to getting further acquainted.
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