The Skimmer

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The Memory Chalet

By Tony Judt

Penguin; 240 pages

When Tony Judt died in August, the world lost not only a great historian and practitioner of engaging argument but also a man with a fine pen and a keen eye. In The Memory Chalet, a set of essays written while he was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, Judt employs the techniques of memory retrieval made famous by Jonathan Spence in his biography of the Jesuit polymath Matteo Ricci. The result is both an autobiography and a lovely little social history of the second half of the 20th century. Here it all is, the shabbiness of postwar London, the Gitanes-scented sexiness of intellectual Paris, the excitement and pride (to be followed by disillusion) of a young Jewish Londoner's discovery of a kibbutz, the shock at discovering that Europe did not stop at the Elbe and that those who lived east of it were braver than those to the west, the way a European thrilled to the vitality of New York and the big skies of the New World — all in a spare and nicely demotic prose. To borrow a phrase from W.B. Yeats, Judt weighed so lightly what he gave. Had he lived longer, he would have given us much, much more.