Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Memory Chalet

This is a peculiar subject - what happens when you find yourself trapped inside your body?  What thoughts, what regrets, what needs, what worries go on in your mind, while you await your death?  I started having an interest in these questions, after reading Tuesdays with Morrie, an excellent wake-up call of what really matters in life, and what to avoid in order to fully benefit from it.  I then read about The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt in Nigella Lawson's blog, and I was interested to see how these questions are seen through the eyes of someone whose actual work is to jot down the history of the world.

The Memory Chalet, despite its sad content, does not have a melancholy theme.  The author explains already in the very beginning of the book the cause of his slow demise, Lou Gehring's disease, without any emotional attachment.  While I cannot imagine how I would have reacted to similar news, I can fully sympathise with his intention to make the most out of a sinister situation.

Judt begins by describing the thought-arranging process, something like compartmentalisation (I use this technique particularly with painful/difficult memories, in situations when I have to remain calm/cheerful/optimistic).  He uses a chalet for this purpose, which I found rather peculiar.  Is it a matter of size?  of country? no, he simply does not want to impress, he wants it to serve. Just a thought...

From then on, he begins taking advantage of his sleepless, motionless nights and goes back in time to his austere childhood (rationing in post-war Britain) and how this developed his character.  I have not had that experience, but I can well imagine his dislike for present-day extravagance.  From corruption to the 15 minutes of fame, most parts of our lives have been shattered to pieces and provide no motive for improvement.  Why should I study, learn a profession, be good at my job to set an example for the next generation, when the person next to me will be on Reality TV, make headlines and set a (bad) example and laugh all the way to the bank?  True, it's the law of demand and supply, but in our days these two are highly suspicious...  

In this point I also liked Judt's differentiation between being and becoming.  It is really that small difference that can have a major impact on one's life - being, passive, the duty, rather unchanged versus becoming, developing, the journey, embracing change.

He is displeased with many of today's shortcomings - I suppose every generation is for the following one.  And although I am that generation he's referring to, I myself can see these same shortcomings in the generation after me:  educational standards are getting lower (I have to admit that even at my time, education was only for those who really wanted to learn on their own - the rest did not stand a chance from teachers who knew even less that they did...); politics is happening elsewhere (this was true then as it is now) - and indeed, we have missed the boat; reforms for the sake of reforms have created  mayhem in our public / professional / industrial life, with the result of sub-average products and services.

And then he turns to language... one of my favourite subjects, I have to say:  it's the use of language that sets humans apart from other animals (here I can recommend the documentary Planet Word), and yet, we don't seem to care.  The times we live in promote the use of language to mystify rather than inform:  "we speak and write badly because we don't feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously.  Rather than suffering from the onset of "newspeak", we risk the rise of "nospeak"".  If this is painful for me, still in top form, I'm wondering how excruciating it must be for a professional user of language who, in the grip of a neurological disorder, loses control of words.  We are so lucky to have this ability to use a wealth of words - we should never take it for granted.

Tony Judt has had the opportunity and the ability to live a full, hands-on life and, when facing a horrible end, proved he could conquer this feat as well.  He has put his thoughts in this book to shake the rest of us from our comfortable seats and take (back) control of our lives. It certainly has shaken me...

Also read for the What's in a name challenge


  1. I have been thinking about the fragility of the human body over the last couple of days and wondering how strong I would be if I got a delipidating disease. Being able to express oneself is such a precious gift.

  2. Anonymous27/4/12

    Wow Patty, what a great post! And some really good questions. My grandmother died of ALS (Lou Gehring's disease) Thankfully she went downhill so quickly that she didn't have to spend too much time trapped inside her own body. I can't imagine how hard it must have been. I love how you describe the way the author deals with it with such grace. The questions and challenges you bring up have really got me thinking.

    1. It's rare that I read a book that "upsets" me in such a way




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