Jan 11

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.

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Jul 10

Judt on words, Shafer on bogusity

People prattle on about the supposed rivalry of print and online. This supposed competition will fade away as portable screens become gradually get closer and closer to being like paper, as tablets and iPad-like devices slim down and become more robust and optically easier on the eye.

This artificially-enhanced “battle” is much less significant than the threat posed to words as a medium of information in the public sphere. The web is a carrier of words, audio and video. Is there a risk that words, which can encode more complex and many-layered meanings than sound and picture, will get drowned out? I fervently hope not. This blog is partisan for words.

Sadly, we may not have too many words to come from Tony Judt, the British-born historian who wrote Postwar, the brilliant history of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. As he writes from his wheelchair, “in the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them”. So cherish Judt’s hymn to words while we still can.

Trend-spotting tends to turn up new words or at least neologisms. Jack Shafer of Slate has developed a strong line in fake-spotting in trend-spotting. Here he sticks it to the New York Times for its “bogusity”. Yes, my dictionary offers “bogusness” as well, but who cares. Bogusity might just be a good enough invention to take over.


May 10

Judt on austerity and restraint

A signpost to a piece in the current edition of the New York Review of Books by Tony Judt unpromisingly entitled “Austerity“.

Judt, author of the standout history of postwar Europe and dozens of other fine commentaries and books, suffers from a fatal progressive disease, ALS, and has been writing his life’s memoir in short pieces in the NYRB.  “Austerity” does not discuss journalism as such, but what he says about politics and entertainment could equally be applied to much modern journalism.

“The wealth of resources we apply to entertainment serves only to shield us form the poverty of the product; likewise in politics, where ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhectoric mask a yawning emptiness.” OK, much journalism is conducted with lesser resources (particularly time). But read the whole piece and you’ll see what I mean.

Do not be put off by the fact that his subject is moral seriousness, austerity and restraint. Judt is one of a few writers who can make these ideas live.