The Memory Chalet

In 1998, in the introduction to The Burden of Responsibility, a book about French intellectuals in the 20th century, the historian Tony Judt made this observation about individuals and their pasts: "Except at moments of unusual crisis, we don't engage in intrusive experimental questioning of our present relationship to the person we once were; and for most of us such efforts to unpack the nature and meaning of our pasts take up a very small share of our waking hours."

Judt's point was that what is true of individuals when it comes to thinking about the past is not true of nations - not least France, an abiding interest of his, where the "meaning to be assigned to a common history . . . is the most contested of all national terrain". (In Postwar, his 2005 magnum opus, he developed this insight on a transnational scale, applying it to the problem of Europe's "troublesome memories" of the Second World War.)

Ten years later, however, just such an "unusual crisis" befell Judt, condemning him to spend most of his waking hours unpacking the nature and meaning of his own past. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or "Lou Gehrig's disease", a neurodegen­erative condition that left him paralysed from the neck down and able to speak and breathe only with the aid of a machine. But this did not prevent Judt - by then, in his own description, a "quadriplegic wearing facial Tupperware" - from giving the prestigious Remarque Lecture last year at New York University, wheelchair-bound, a breathing apparatus attached to his nose and his body tightly swaddled in blankets (ALS leaves the sufferer with a permanent sensation of cold.) This remarkable performance gave rise to his penultimate book, Ill Fares the Land (2010), a short and furious "treatise on our present [political] discontents", to which The Memory Chalet, published posthumously (Judt died in August), is a more personal companion volume.

Both books were composed with the assistance of an amanuensis, to whom Judt dictated the contents in a series of punishingly protracted bedside colloquies. (A substantial third volume, on the history of the 20th century, is due to appear next year.) And because he was no longer able to hold a pen or strike a keyboard, Judt used a mnemonic device to organise his material: his "memory chalet" is a modest version of the "memory palaces" used by early modern thinkers and travellers to retain and recall detail and description. It is based on an unremarkable little pensione in an unremarkable little town in the Swiss Alps where Judt spent a winter holiday with his parents in the late 1950s. He describes how he would assign fragments of narrative to different parts of the building - to the bar, say, the dining room, or the bedrooms.

Judt depicts the chalet inside his head as a kind of refuge, and his nocturnal visits to it as way of making tolerable the calvary of immobility imposed upon him by his condition. The compensations of memory-work are not to be overestimated, however. "Loss is loss," he writes, "and nothing is to be gained by calling it by a nicer name." His unillusioned and unsentimental apprehension of his own imminent disappearance gives the book, which is made up of 25 short feuilletons, many of them first published in the New York Review of Books, a sort of pre-posthumous quality. Indeed, one is reminded of David Hume's last testament, "My Own Life", in which the philosopher, stricken by a "disorder in his bowels", moves from the present tense to the past ("I am, or rather was"), as if the "speedy dissolution" he is anticipating had already happened.

Thus, this is a book about loss, but it is not simply about what Judt lost when ALS took hold of him, and it would be unduly reductive to read it that way. It is clear that he intends these vignettes of his 1950s lower-middle-class childhood in south London, his early 1960s adolescence and eventual ascent from a direct-grant school in Battersea to King's College, Cambridge as, to use his own phrase, "illustrative examples". They are meant to illustrate, I think, what Judt, in Ill Fares the Land, calls the "world we have lost" - the world of postwar social democracy, with its "crescendo of [public] expenditure and welfare provision".

Ill Fares the Land was a threnody not only for the interventionist state that bequeathed to western societies a regulated economy and better social services, but also for a certain idea of human beings and human association, and for the notion that there exist public goods that the market is not best suited to provide. Here, in an essay on the (mostly female) "bedders" who tidied the rooms of (mostly male) Cambridge students when Judt was an undergraduate, he refers witheringly to a "reduced and impoverished capitalist vision" of rational economic man. Over the past three decades, he argues, this vision has usurped that of the citizen, understood as one who belongs to a civic grouping that is expressive of something more than just the total aggregate of individual preferences.

For Judt, therefore, social democracy is not only a matter of political economy; it is also an ethos. In Ill Fares the Land, he wrote that there was a "moralised quality" to policy debates in the postwar period, when questions such as unemployment and inflation were regarded not just as economic issues, but also as "tests of the ethical coherence of the community". He returns to that theme here, in a chapter entitled "Austerity". This is in part a vivid evocation of "austerity Britain" - all chilly flats, suffocating smog and terrible food (although his father's taste for foreign travel, and Friday-evening meals at the home of his Jewish grandmother, offered welcome respite from the rigours of a 1950s English diet). But, Judt writes, "austerity was not just an economic condition: it aspired to a public ethic". And austerity-as-ethic was best embodied by Clement Attlee, whom Judt praises on more than one occasion for his "moral seriousness".

Moral seriousness, and a certain imperviousness to corrupting ideological enthusiasms (he particularly admired, for example, the French political thinker Raymond Aron for his indifference to the changing political and theoretical fashions on the Left Bank), were both the subject of Judt's scholarly work over more than 20 years and one of the distinguishing features of his intellectual temperament. If he is to be believed, the seeds of this outlook lie in the summers that he spent on an Israeli kibbutz, before and immediately after the Six Day War. He went to Israel, he recalls, an enthusiastic Labour Zionist. He came back a "universalist social democrat", disillusioned, if not with the idea of Israel tout court - though much later he would earn considerable notoriety with an article in which he endorsed the establishment of a single, binational state in the Middle East - then at least with the "theory and practice of communitarian democracy".

In examining his past, Judt has managed to write what amounts to a Bildungsroman of one of the most distinctive writerly personas of the age. At the same time, he has told us something important about ourselves: about what we were and what we have become.

The Memory Chalet
Tony Judt
Heinemann, 240pp, £16.99

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman