Down Memory Lane
Earlier this month, Penguin Press published The Memory Chalet, a series of essays by the late Tony Judt, who died this August. Judt was a historian who wrote and edited fourteen books, including Ill Fares the Land, a commentary on today’s economic woes which was released earlier this year. Ill Fares the Land is a deep look into the social costs of laissez-faire capitalism. The essay collection is a deep look into Judt’s racing mind. The author was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2008 and was paralyzed from the neck down when the essays were written.
The Memory Chalet is a collection of twenty-five essays, most of which have appeared in The New York Review of Books. “These essays in this little book were never intended for publication,” writes Judt in the book’s preface. Instead, he wrote the essays to help him cope with his increasingly limited mobility as his ALS worsened. Judt, who is able to speak and breathe with a ventilator but is unable to move any muscle in his body below the neck, verbally dictates his stories. “The salient quality of this particular neurodegenerative disorder,” Judt writes, “is that it leaves your mind clear to reflect upon past, present and future, but steadily deprives you of any means of converting these reflections into words.”
Frustrated by his body’s increasing limitations, Judt delves inward to the vivid memories of his past. To help him cope with endless, haunting nights where he must lie in his bed completely still, Judt recalls a calming image of the Swiss ski chalet he visited as a child. In this chalet that exists in his memory, the author crafts scenes and stories to get through the night: “My solution has been to scroll through my life. My thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, mis-memories, and the like 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.”
When Ill Fares the Land was released in the spring of this year, Teri Gross interviewed Judt on the NPR program Fresh Air. In the interview, the wheeze of Judt’s respirator can be heard as he speaks. “Normal people don’t think very much about the medium term future,” he says. “They think only about the present, which is constantly changing for them or the very far future, which is just an abstraction. For me, it’s the other way around, my present never changes.” In The Memory Chalet, Judt calculates and pours over each recollection so carefully the reader feels that he has stepped directly between the spinning gears of his mind.
The essays in The Memory Chalet are short, thoughtful musings on a theme: “Cars,” “Austerity,” “The Green Line Bus.” For the most part, nothing unusual or fantastic happens. Instead, they are atmospheric and carefully calculated accounts of simple joys the author experienced in earlier chapters of his life. In “Memetic Desire,” Judt expresses the childhood joy of riding the train by himself to nowhere in particular. “Perhaps the most dispiriting consequence of my present disease,” the author writes, “more depressing even than its practical, daily manifestation—is the awareness that I shall never again ride the rails. This knowledge weighs on me like a leaden blanket, pressing me ever deeper into that gloom-laden sense of an ending that marks the truly terminal disease: the understanding that some things will never be.”
Judt was raised in England and attended King’s College, Cambridge, before eventually becoming the associate dean. Most fascinating are the class distinctions Judt recalls, both as a child and as a university student. “Before the war, [lower-middle-class] families could typically afford a maid and perhaps a cook as well. The real middle class, of course, did much better: upstairs and downstairs staff were well within the reach of a professional man and his family.” By the 1950s, purse strings were tighter, so Judt’s lower-middle-class family scraped by with “a day nanny” and “a series of au pair girls,” luxuries that seem more in line with the upper-middle-class American families of today.
Judt is well known for his often controversial opinions on Judaism, and in The Memory Chalet, he classifies himself as an “edge person,” or an individual who does not identify with one nationality or belief system, but balances on the edge of several. Although Judt considers himself Jewish, he does not “practice Jewish rituals.” He does not wholeheartedly embrace the religion, nor does he blindly defend it in order to feel a sense of belonging in the Jewish community. The author also maintains strong and undoubtedly controversial views about university policies on sexual harassment. In the book’s most humorous essay, Judt dates a ballet-dancing graduate student while employed as a professor at NYU. “How did I elude the harassment police,” the author writes, “who surely were on my tail as I surreptitiously dated my bright-eyed ballerina? Reader: I married her.”
The author’s memories are so palpable and yet so ephemeral, it feels jarring when he addresses a present-day issue, like text messaging or George W. Bush. These references feel too flat, too fleeting when compared to the lush images of the past that now exist only inside Judt’s mind. But whether the author recalls the British sexual revolution in the ’60s, his first trip to the United States in the ’70s or his move to New York City in the ’80s, only Switzerland remains as serene and perfect in his mind as the day he first experienced it as a child. “Nothing happens,” he writes about Switzerland. “It is the happiest place in the world. We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will.”
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.