Monday 15 August 2016

Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet

Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet makes a fine retreat on windy, sinusbound afternoon. I wanted something short and open, with suggestion. I also wanted to fall asleep for some time in the middle of reading, which I did.

I first read Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books, where already I realised that, given a slight tweak of history, I might have known him. Same age, same background, same weft and warp, more history, more discussion, a voluble rather than a silent family.

My young sense of kin was built on people like him I knew existed, probably in London, later in New York. When I did meet them I had a sense of recognition and discomfort, like an evening meal en famille, minus the black holes. I wasn't used to feeling at home.

He wrote or built The Memory Chalet during the later stages of motor neurone disease, in which limbs and functions drop away but the mind races on, nightlong. He's a historian, so his nightlong is full of structure, the only itch he can scratch till morning and assistance come. Harold Brodkey did something similar in 1996 when he was in hospital dying of AIDS: 'I am practicing making entries in my journal to record my passage into non-existence'. Tony Judt takes his cue from an Italian traveller to medieval China: The memory palace of Matteo Ricci. The building is a mnemonic device and a container to leave in trust.

Much of what I recognise in Tony Judt lies in his unease about identity labels such as English or Jew, his preference for edge people, as well as a shared era of Green Line buses and Paris événements. It's a relief to consolidate my own sense of being (happily) on the edge. Sometimes I forget how appealing that is, how fundamental to so much of life. Then there are moments when, for example, walking down the Coal Quay in Cork City on a Saturday morning, I realise among the organic veg stalls that I have skeetered back from the edge into a brief sense of the middle.

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