Mürren and Its Train. Tony Judt’s Personal Memories

 After his political will in „Ill Fares the Land“ (see my blog of May 8, 2010), Tony Judt managed to publish before his tragic death last August a very personal reflection on his youth, his travels, his career, his life. He called it “The Memory Chalet” (ISBN 978434020966). This title has a double meaning for Judt: one the one hand, he uses the memory of a Swiss mountain chalet where he spent a vacation with his parents during the fifties as a mnemonic device, having “placed” specific memories into rooms, drawers, closets of this chalet – from which he can retrieve them at will.

On the other hand, it signifies his love for the Bernese Oberland, specifically Mürren, which for him denoted stability, continuity, tradition, cleanliness, solidity – obviously a strong and important counterweight to his own British – American – Jewish globalized life and identity. It is the positive counterweight from which he could develop his insatiable quest for Europe, for regions where cultures meet each other, with all their tensions and potentials, as well as an antidote to the ever more individualized, commercialized, globalized world.

The book is not a sequential life story, but is ordered according to themes which were important to Judt: examples are “austerity”, “food”, “The Green Line Bus”, “The Lord Warden”, “Go West, young Judt”, “Edge People”, “Meritocrats”, “Toni”. This technique brings to vivid life many facets of his life which started in after-war Putney on top of his parents’ barber shop and brought him via Cambridge and New York into the position of a global intellectual and history giant. He remembers poverty, the English class system (both socially and regionally), the endlessly boiled food his mother provided, his father’s fascination with (shunned by his neighbors) Citroen cars, his only Jewish identity events as every Friday’s dinners in his grandparents’ flat where the whole extended family ate, shouted, deliberated and argues: Socialists and Conservatives, Zionists and assimilists, monarchists and republicans. These discussions taught young Tony the value of argument which he picked up very quickly.

These short vignettes exhibit Judt’s remorse on the vanishing sense for community and the res publica from our world. He sadly had to witness the disintegration of society, the egocentric triumphalism of individualist politics. Judt blames the “68” generation for much of this development, in their quest for “here and now”, for self-satisfaction, for placing ones momentary sentiments above respect for a larger whole. While this tendency certainly existed, I would disagree with its responsibility for egomanic individualism which rather stems from capitalist, market-oriented interests which gained priority after the worst after-effects of World War II had been overcome, especially in England, but later also in Continental Europe. I agree with Judt, however, that the failure of the post-68 Left to develop a counter-model to the unfettered market-economy interests, their ideological infighting, plays a big role for the present-day crisis. Their failure to see that the slow demise of the communist counter-model removed  further shackles of the after-war “social welfare state” type of market economy and would lead to large-scale privatisations and deregulation and a vilification of the state as the bearer of social solidarity, was to some extent Judt’s own. He describes his personal “midlife” crisis as the by-chance revelation that he did not know anything about the history and politics of Central and Eastern Europe, having confined his studies to France and Germany (both of which languages he spoke fluently). Judt’s quite remarkable solution to this recognition was to learn Czech, which offered him a way into getting to know East European dissidents and their countries. This, eventually, gave him the opportunity to write his grandiose “Postwar. A History of Europe sicne 1945”, in which he sees European history not divided by East and West, but rather as an integrated, interlinked stream of events.


For a while Tony Judt was a fervent Zionist, organizing and later spending significant time in a Kibbuz in Israel – which was a very negative experience for him, not only the backbreaking physical labor sorting bananas, but rather the extremely limited viewpoints of his comrades – and especially their ignorance and disinterest in the fates of their Arabic neighbors. Against reproaches from the Kibuzzim he left and returned to Cambridge to become a “man of words”.


One remarkable omission in this book is a description of his family life. Married 3 times, his wives appear only as numbers, e.g. “wife 2”, and remain completely opaque. He is puzzled and makes fun at American political correctness, which forbids college professors to receive female students with office doors closed (he remembers David Mamet’s play of this topic), he talks briefly about the female cleaning ladies of Cambridge fellows, but his only significant mentioning of a personal description is the fact that he mentions that his wife 3 was a ballerina (is this in deference to John Maynard Keynes whom he adores?). An then, he very laconically touches upon the fact that his aunt Toni Avgael (whose name he carries) went into the gas in Auschwitz in 1942.


The book is most remarkable where Judt describes his contempt for ideology and people who espouse them. He hates –isms: be they Fascism, Communism, Marxism, Feminism, Intellectualism, Elitism, Zionism……….He sees the apologists of today’s market propagandists in line with the above –isms. They espouse similar narrowness of thought, disallow counter-arguments (“There is no alternative” – Thatcher) and destroy discourse and deliberation. He sees parallels to the vast mid-Western plains of the US where agglomerations of houses are without soul, without community, without cohesion, apart from the churches which are the only remnant of former community life. This long-lost sense of community, of caring not only for oneself but for others, for “society” is Judt’s biggest loss.


Tony Judt’s love for Switzerland and its railroads is really touching. His admiration, how Mürren can survive in this crazed world of mass tourism and blaring music, and steadfastly defend its old houses, its inaccessibility, its traditions, sounds authentic and nostalgic. It is the memory of a person whose very active mind is caught in an increasingly dead body, which makes him love these antagonistic manifestations of the possibility of a different life. His last sentences are: “Nothing happens: it is the happiest place in the world. We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever”. I had to hold back my tears reading this.

1 Comment

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One response to “Mürren and Its Train. Tony Judt’s Personal Memories

  1. James L Hudson

    Kurt: Only people have souls and and build communites, none of the isms is in the game. All of the isms I would argue including religion argue against the soul and negate true communities. Jim

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