A man being entombed in his own body sounds like the premise for a horror novel. However, this book is the autobiography of a historian.
Tony Judt’s Postwar is one of my favourite books. An epic history of Europe since World War II that spans the Iron Curtain and a massive range of historical fields. All in some of the most brilliant non-fiction writing I’ve ever come across. Judt uses that skill to evoke his life and his descent into the hell of amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This horrendous degenerative disease robs its victims of the ability to use their body but leaves the mind intact. Judt authored this book in the time between losing the use of his hands and therefore the ability to write independently but before the “diaphragm muscles can longer pump sufficient air across your vocal chords to furnish them with the variety of pressure to express meaningful words.” The book is thus dictated and its title is a reference to a memory mnemonic that Judt uses to memorise refined text he wishes to have noted down.
Judt posits that this combination of a malfunctioning body with an unaffected mind produces a state particularly conducive to ‘reflecting on the past, present and future.’ And that is in essence the ‘Memory Chalet’: Judt’s reflections on his life. Being both a historian of post-war Europe and a post-war European, he uses his own life as a source to understand the period in which he lives. Of particular interest are his insights into the Sixties which are sharp, both in the sense of being both insightful and lacerating.
Despite his intellect and his humour, one gets the impression that was probably a difficult person. Nonetheless, there are at least two things about his life that I find inspiring. Firstly, rather than using his deep reflection as a hunt for some identity, he relishes in the cosmopolitanism of being an English secular Jewish Francophile Czech speaking New Yorker. Secondly, that his reaction to his death sentence was not to despair but to carry on thinking and writing.
What might seem like flaws in most books, simply don’t in this one. For example, Judt’s combination of European social democracy and English conservatism (with a very small c) make him nostalgic for institutions that we are best rid of like grammar schools and British Rail but this is autobiography not history. What we have is the distillation of a brilliant mind complete with its prejudices and frailties. This is Judt’s parting gift to the world is an opportunity to see into the thinking of a great historian.
Judt succumbed to ALS in August 2010. Rest in peace and thank you for the lessons.