Tony Judt: fine writing from the shadow of death

One of my sons gave me for Christmas Tony Judt’s last book, The Memory Chalet. His choice wasn’t a hard one: I’ve wittered on for years about Judt’s perceptive and eloquent writing. But even being a paid-up Judt fan didn’t quite prepare me for this small, posthumous book’s perfectly-formed qualities.

All Judt’s skills are on display as they were fondly listed by his friends and colleagues when he died in August last year. You are reminded of his wide, lightly-worn learning, his grasp of cause and effect in European culture and history, his preparedness to unpick lazy conventional wisdom and his skill at clinching an argument with a skillfully selected and vividly described example. All these qualities and more are discussed more fully in this review by Michael O’Donnell in the Washington Monthly.

But there’s something different about this book, most of which was published episodically by the New York Review of Books in the months when Judt knew he was dying and as his body gradually shut down. The something different is the prose.

Judt was always a good writer; in The Memory Chalet he rises to a new level altogether. He was composing from memory during wakeful, immobile nights and memory is a ruthless editor, pruning the inessential. The writing fuses the personal and the political in a way that is truly rare. It reveals Judt as a talented reporter: he had an eye and a memory for killer detail.

And he was released from all self-consciousness, all inhibition: he had nothing to prove and need make no apology for anything he wrote from the solitary confinement of his disease. That, above all, gives the writing its hard clarity mixed with human sympathy. Tony Judt wrote other books with more intellectually serious purpose and scope. But I think this last one will be his legacy that endures.

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