The Memory Chalet
is a 2010 memoir in essays by British-American historian Tony Judt. As Judt became progressively paralyzed by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), he lost the ability to write. Nevertheless, he continued to compose essays in his head and, having devised an intricate way of memorizing their contents, he was able to dictate them to an amanuensis. Each essay is autobiographical in content, using Judt’s memories as a springboard into historical and social observation and analysis.
Judt begins the collection by explaining the circumstances of its composition: “The salient quality of this particular neurodegenerative disorder,” Judt writes in the book’s title essay, “is that it leaves your mind clear to reflect on the past, present, and future, but steadily deprives you of any means of converting those reflections into words.
“First you can no longer write independently, requiring either an assistant or a machine in order to record your thoughts. Then your legs fail and you cannot take in new experiences…Next, you begin to lose your voice…By this point you are almost certainly quadriplegic and condemned to long hours of silent immobility…For someone wishing to remain a communicator of words and concepts, this poses an unusual challenge.”
His paralysis is an especial torment at night. “There I lie, trussed, myopic and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied…only by my thoughts.”
With nothing else to do, Judt begins weaving essays from “segments of my own past which I had never…thought of as related.” At first, he cannot preserve these complex, ingenious essays—by morning, he has lost their thread. His solution draws on his historical scholarship. He has long been fascinated by the “memory palace” mnemonic system used by Renaissance thinkers.
For his own “palace,” Judt selects a Swiss chalet at which he spent a brief holiday with his family when he was ten years old. Despite only having been there twice, every detail of the chalet is vivid to him, making it the perfect setting for his mnemonic efforts. In memory, he walks the rooms of the chalet, leaving a fragment of memory here, another there. Later, as he dictates his essays, he returns to the chalet and collects each fragment as he speaks.
The remainder of the essays proceeds through Judt’s life in chronological order, beginning with his childhood in Putney, London. His recollections are precise and vivid: of his mother’s Jewish-inflected cooking; his Belgian father’s taste for wine, camembert, and Citroën cars; the Judaism of his grandparents (on both sides). He devotes much of one essay to the bus and train journeys he used to make as a child, using this topic as a launching pad to explore social change in his native England since the Second World War: “The conductor, paid a little less than the skilled driver, was usually but not always a younger man (there were hardly any women). His function was ostensibly to keep order and collect fares; but since large tracts of countryside were often covered with relatively few passengers and stops, his task was hardly preoccupying. In practice, he kept the driver company.” These days “the conductors are long gone and the drivers, now insulated from the interior…have no dealings with their customers beyond the purely commercial.”
The central part of the memoir deals with Judt’s education. He recollects fondly a strict high-school teacher who all but forced Judt to learn German (sparking a lifelong interest in languages). Most of the section concerns his time at Cambridge, where he learned several languages, became interested in Eastern European history and fell in love with French critical theory.
During this time, Judt flirted with Zionism and Marxism. His Zionism withered after a series of stints on a kibbutz, during which he recognized the repressive direction in which the state of Israel was headed. His Marxism, likewise, could not survive exposure to the reality of Eastern bloc Communism: “Before even turning twenty, I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a South London teenager.” Meanwhile, Judt is living through the social upheavals of the sixties. One essay reflects on how he—like many of his peers—embraced a theoretical radicalism while remaining conservative in their life choices.
The remainder of the collection focuses on Judt’s adult life. These essays are organized loosely around his work life, but they cover many topics, from his three marriages to his complex relationship with Judaism and his love affair with New York City, where he moved originally for professional reasons. He celebrates New York as one of the few remaining world cities where people of mixed and shifting identities (he considers himself British and American and Jewish) can feel at home and thrive.