Friday, April 06, 2012

Tony Judt – ‘The Memory Chalet’

T the moment, my parents are moving house. It has caused all kinds of confrontation with things stashed in their attic, ostensibly against the day when their children have attics of their own. My hoard included the periodicals to which I’ve been subscribed since I was eight – a lot of Beanos (1984 – 1989), even more Melody Makers (1992 until its decline became un-ignorable, 1998 or so?), and... that’s it, actually. My Careless Talk Costs Lives and Plan Bs are here, in my flat, and I don’t hold on to the London Review of Books, my current tipple (I’m doing well if I read an entire current issue, let alone revisiting past ones – and it’s all online anyway). In the early days of this LRB era, when our love was new, and hearts were high, I tried to read Tony Judt’s well-reviewed, monumental history of modern Europe, Postwar. Now, I never read history books, and have an extremely bad A-level grade testifying to my lack of interest in things which actually happened, so it shouldn’t be taken as a sleight against the book that I only made it half way through. How to sustain one’s interest when there is no protagonist, and the focus is on social trends rather than individuals, is something I still hope to learn. But it is not necessary for The Memory Chalet, a collection of memoir essays.

The chapter ‘New York, New York’ praises Judt’s adopted city as outward-looking, more a world city than an American one, and it pays the same compliment to the New York Review of Books:
It is no accident that today we have a London Review of Books, an Athens Review of Books, a Budapest Review of Books, a proposal for a European Review of books, and even a Jewish Review of Books: each in its way a nod to the influence of the homonymic model. And yet they fall short. Why? The London Review of Books is exemplary in its way (though I should recuse myself here as an occasional contributor); but it is a distinctly London product, reflecting a metropolitan left-ism that is unmistakably English if not Oxbridge. The others are overtly partisan and parochial. […] What distinguishes the New York Review is precisely that it is not about New York. (p. 199)
Have I been reading the wrong one? Grant Maclennan was a subscriber, you’ll remember. Either paper, I dare say, will give the regular reader new directions to think in, because both are founded on a trick of language – they appear to be about a single subject, books, but then books can be about anything. This is what I loved about Melody Maker, too, the opportunities it took to broaden its palette, partly in terms of new music contextualised (how many new Big Star fans did their Teenage Fanclub coverage create?), but also the way it played with the idea of contextualisation itself, borrowing from literary theory to do so (see Simon Reynolds’ Blissed Out for a distillation). Cross-fertilisation is something old, paper media does far better than the web, and a reason why subscriptions still matter. I wouldn’t feel comfortable without that thump on the doormat every fortnight, and the impetus to find out again why everything I thought I knew is wrong.

Some more quotations, in lieu of the review that this isn’t. And I should say that the book is very good, full of sense, perspective and fondness, as it moves from a London childhood to academia and New York. References to the – to say the least – difficult circumstances of its composition are matter-of-fact, self pity is nowhere.
As a child, I always felt uneasy and a little constrained around people, my family in particular. Solitude was bliss, but not easily obtained. Being always felt stressful – wherever I was there was something to do, someone to please, a duty to be completed, a role inadequately fulfilled: something amiss. Becoming, on the other hand, was relief. I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven. (p. 66)
proximity can be delusory: sometimes it is better to share with your neighbours a mutually articulated sense of the foreign. (p. 80)

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