The Memory Chalet
by Tony Judt (The Penguin Press)
Thinking the Twentieth Century
by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder (The Penguin Press)
A friend once announced to a dinner party that, were he told he had only a short time to live, he would strap himself with dynamite and embrace the Supreme Court justice he feared and hated most. A few years later, my friend died—peacefully, at home, in his bed, without having committed a high-profile suicide bombing.
Art and life abound with examples of what the fatally ill intend to do, succeed in doing, or fail to do during their last months of life. Akira Kurosawa’s beautiful film Ikiru concerns a bureaucrat who has spent his career behind a desk and whose impending death inspires him to take what is (for him) a heroic stance and arrange the construction of a children’s playground. In Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, the ailing American heiress Milly Theale travels to Venice, where she falls under the spell of a gold-digging suitor, Merton Densher. After learning that Densher and his fiancée have conspired to inherit her fortune, she dies, but not before leaving Densher a sum that will trouble his conscience—and effectively end his engagement to his attractive co-conspirator. The dying protagonist of Anton Chekhov’s “Peasants,” a waiter in a Moscow hotel, decides to take his wife and daughter back to his native village so that he can finish his life amid the comforts of home—a remembered paradise that turns out to be a hell populated by greedy, resentful relatives who can hardly wait for him to expire and relieve them of the financial and emotional strains created by his presence.
And what do artists and writers do when they themselves are faced with the imminence of death? One of Pablo Picasso’s final works is a powerful self-portrait: the painter’s face as a skull with eyes that seem to glow with rage and terror. Decades after writing The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which might be considered a worst-case end-of-life scenario, a narrative of profound regret and physical agony unconvincingly mediated by the ministrations of a saintly peasant, Leo Tolstoy resolved to spend the short span remaining to him as a wandering mendicant; he fled his home and died in a railway station, amid what today would be called a media circus. Terminally ill with liver disease, Roberto Bolaño, whose earlier novella By Night in Chile was framed as the deathbed confession of a priest who worked for the Pinochet regime, wrote his masterpiece, 2666, a nine-hundred page epic novel intended as an exploration of the mystery of evil—and as a possible source of income for his widow and two children; so eager was he to generate income for his survivors that, under the impression it might increase sales, Bolaño suggested that his five-part novel be published, posthumously, in five separate sections. I say all this because it is impossible to read Tony Judt’s last two books without seeing them at least partly as what they were: a conscious and purposeful final project.
In 2008, at the age of sixty, Judt—historian, public intellectual, political philosopher, the founder and director of New York University’s Remarque Institute, and an author whose books include Ill Fares the Land and Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945—was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. During the two years that separated that diagnosis and his death, Judt managed to write—and later, as the disease rapidly deprived him of his motor skills, to dictate—“a small political book, a public lecture, some twenty feuilletons reflecting on my life, and a considerable body of interviews directed toward a full-scale study of the twentieth century.” After his death, the feuilletons were collected and published as The Memory Chalet, while the interviews form the basis of Thinking the Twentieth Century.