If my own personal library (God, that sounds pretentious) could have only one type of book, it would be essays. Accessible essays on all sorts of subjects. You can see where the annual Five Leaves essay collection comes from. At the heart of the collection would be a group of books like this one. Excellent essays, fairly personal in orientation, but grounded in experience and an understanding of history and politics.
Reading The Memory Chalet is difficult though, because you are aware that the author was dying when he wrote them. In fact he did not write them, he dictated them as motor neuron disease made movement impossible. The reader is always conscious that these were the last writings by a major writer occupying his well-ordered mind in a productive way. What else could he have done?
The essays I am drawn back to are the more personal accounts – of early travels in Europe, of his disenchantment with Zionism born out of living on a kibbutz, of London bus routes, of manual labour on board a ship, alternating “between scrubbing diesel boilers and throwing up in the teeth of a North Sea blizzard”.
Judt was of the left, at home mostly in the pages of the London Review of Books, but was quite clear about the kind of socialism he wanted – in the 1960s supporting Havel, Michnik, Kis and other “outcast” intellectuals who he saw as the best hope in replacing the “dead dogma immured in a decaying society” that was Eastern Europe under communism, and which also helped him reconnect to his East European Jewish origins.
Judt finishes the book with a chalet – a cafe at a small train stop In Murren, Switzerland – with the mountains falling away into the valley below, with the sight of summer barns you can climb up to. You can wait for the next train “punctual, predictable” or just wait, in a place where nothing goes wrong. Judt was rootless, lived in many places, but he ends “We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.” And that’s when you cry.