The Memory Chalet - By Tony Judt


The essays in this little book were never intended for publication. I started writing them for my own satisfaction—and at the encouragement of Timothy Garton Ash, who urged me to turn to advantage the increasingly internal reference of my own thoughts. I do not think that I had any idea what it was I was embarking upon, and I am grateful to Tim for his confident support of the initial scribblings that resulted.

About halfway through the writing of these feuilletons I showed one or two of them to my agents at the Wylie Agency, as well as to Robert Silvers at the New York Review of Books and was heartened at their enthusiasm. However, this raised an ethical question for me. Because I did not write them with the view to immediate publication, these short pieces never benefitted from an internal editor—or, more precisely, a private censor. Where they spoke of my parents or my childhood, of ex-wives and present colleagues, I let them speak. This has the merit of directness; I hope it will not cause offense.

I have not altered or rephrased any of the original texts, which were written with the help and collaboration of my long-time colleague Eugene Rusyn. Reading them over, I see that I have been quite open and occasionally even critical of those I love, whereas I was judiciously silent for the most part regarding people of whom I have retained a less-than-affectionate regard. Doubtless this is how it should be. I do hope that my parents, my wife and above all my children will read in these exercises in fond recall further evidence of my abiding love for them all.


The Memory Chalet

For me the word “chalet” conjures up a very distinctive image. It brings to mind a small pensione, a family hotel in the unfashionable village of Chesières, at the foot of the well-heeled Villars ski region in French-speaking Switzerland. We must have spent a winter holiday there in 1957 or ’58. The skiing—or in my case, sledding—cannot have been very memorable: I recall only that my parents and uncle used to trudge over the icy foot bridge and on up to the ski lifts, spending the day there but abjuring the fleshpots of the après-ski in favor of a quiet evening in the chalet.

For me this was always the best part of a winter holiday: the repetitive snow-bound entertainment abandoned by early afternoon for heavy armchairs, warm wine, solid country food, and long evenings in the open lounge decompressing among strangers. But what strangers! The curiosity of the little pensione in Chesières lay in its apparent attraction to down-at-heel British actors vacationing in the distant, indifferent shadow of their more successful fellows farther up the mountain.

The second evening we were there, the dining room was graced with a volley of sexual epithets that brought my mother to her feet. No stranger to bad language—she was raised within earshot of the old West India Docks—she had been apprenticed out of her class into the polite limbo of ladies hairdressing and had no intention of exposing her family to such filth.

Mrs. Judt duly marched across to the offending table and asked that they desist: there were children present. Since my sister was not yet eighteen months, and I was the only other child in the hotel, this request was presumably advanced for my benefit. The young—and, as I later surmised, unemployed—actors who were responsible for the outburst immediately apologized and invited us to join them for dessert.

They were a marvelous crew, not least to the all-seeing (and all-hearing) ten-year-old now placed in their midst. All were unknown at this point, though some would go on to an illustrious future: Alan Badel, not yet a prominent Shakespearean actor with a respectable filmography to his credit (Day of the Jackal ); but above all the irrepressible Rachel Roberts, soon to become the iconic disillusioned working-class wife of the greatest British postwar movies (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, O Lucky Man!). It was Roberts who took me under her wing, muttering unrepeatable imprecations in a whisky-fueled baritone that left me with few illusions as to her future, though a certain confusion regarding my own. Over the course of that vacation she taught me poker, assorted card tricks, and more bad language than I have had time to forget.

Perhaps for this reason, the little Swiss hotel on Chesières’s high street has a fonder as well as a deeper place in my memory than other doubtless identical